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Why the attack on America’s Tanf base in Syria matters

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Why the attack on America’s Tanf base in Syria matters

An attack on a US base in Syria took place on Wednesday night. US officials told media that unmanned aerial systems and “indirect fire” were involved. This means that drones and rockets may have been used in what appears to be a complex attack. The culprit is likely local pro-Iranian forces linked to Iran and given freedom of movement by the Syrian regime. 

This model of using local proxies is classic for Iran. Iran has encouraged its proxies in Iraq to attack US forces with rockets and drones since 2019. Drones are increasingly used. Iran has also exported drone technology to Yemen and Gaza. Hamas used Iranian-style drones for the first time in May against Israel. Meanwhile, Iran has also moved drones to T-4 base in Syria and flew one into Israeli airspace in February 2018.  

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That is the context of the attack. But the attack matters more because of where it took place. When we look at Iran’s drone and rocket threat there is an arc of threat that stretches thousands of kilometers from Lebanon via Syria and Iraq to Yemen. Iran uses these weapons to threaten Israel, Saudi Arabia, the US and Gulf states.

For instance, Houthis in Yemen have used rockets and drones to target long-distance targets in Saudi Arabia, sometimes reaching some 1,000km in range. 

Tanf is a lonely US base in Syria near the Jordanian and Iraqi border. As such, it is of strategic value because of where it is. It sits astride a road and can thus monitor what is happening in this part of Syria. The base was established near the Rukban camp where thousands of Syrians have sought refuge over the years during the Syrian civil war.

 SYRIA’S PRESIDENT Bashar Assad places flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Damascus during a ceremony to mark the anniversary of the 1973 war with Israel.  (credit: SANA/REUTERS) SYRIA’S PRESIDENT Bashar Assad places flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Damascus during a ceremony to mark the anniversary of the 1973 war with Israel. (credit: SANA/REUTERS)

The US established the base also to train Syrian rebels. However, the Syrian regime, which began to make major advances in 2017 and 2018, cut the base off from contact with any other rebel or US-backed forces in eastern Syria. That means there were questions about whether the US would stay at Tanf after 2018. 

For pro-Syrian regime elements, the base is a thorn in the side of Syria. For Iran, it is a threat to Iran’s militias that have spread along the Euphrates from Albukamal on the Iraq border to Deir Ezzor. That means that Iran sees the base as potentially threatening its attempt to create a road to the sea via Iraq and Syria so it can arm Hezbollah.

Pro-Iranian militias such as Kataib Hezbollah set up headquarters in Albukamal after 2017. In 2018, an airstrike targeted a Kataib Hezbollah building in Albukamal. Later in 2019 more airstrikes targeted pro-Iranian militias in Iraq and those groups blamed Israel.

In November 2019, Russia said that Israel had flown over Jordan to conduct airstrikes in Syria. In 2020, a hill called Tel al-Sahn or ‘Radar dish hill’ was struck in an airstrike in Syria. What this means is that for the Syrian regime, Iran and the Russian backers of the regime the presence of the Tanf base is a concern. They think the base may help provide the US and US partners intelligence about the region and Iranian movements.  

There is another context as well. The Syrian regime is doing outreach to Iraq, Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf, hoping to get more support from Arab states. It wants a return to normal after a decade of war. Removing the US from Tanf is part of this desire. It would like to get Jordanian and Iraqi support on this issue. If Tanf is a target of drones and rockets, the logic is that local elements with Iranian support might think this can harass the US into leaving. They have seen how the US left Afghanistan and how US forces left many facilities in Iraq. 

The context then of the strike on Tanf is part of a wider regional struggle. However, Iranian media has not layed up the attack, leading to questions over whether Iran is the major player here, or if other elements closer to the Syrian regime or local militias are the guiding hand.

The use of drones points to some complexity and likely support from Tehran. Iran trains drone operators at its Kashan base. It has been increasingly using drones in attacks in places like the Gulf of Oman and targeting US forces in Erbil.

Usually, it gets proxies to fly these drones. It remains to be seen how the US might respond. In 2017 the US shot down an Iranian drone near Tanf. The US has also carried out airstrikes in the past in Syria targeting pro-Iranian groups. 

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Why the attack on America’s Tanf base in Syria matters – analysis