Iran Focus

London, 27 July - The US’s military base near to southern Syria’s al-Tanf border crossing may have been set up to train local Syrians to fight ISIS militants, but it also provides an effective counterweight to Iran’s malign activities in the region.

Army Major Josh Jacques, a spokesman for US Central Command (CENTCOM), said: “Our mere presence there accomplishes that, whether it’s a goal or not.”

Even though the US military is primarily focused on training a Syrian group called Maghawir al-Thawra (MaT) to defeat ISIS, CENTCOM commander US Army General Joseph Votel reports that the American presence indirectly impedes Iran’s “destabilizing acts” in the nation.

On July 19, Votel said: “There are opportunities for us to indirectly influence their [Iran’s] activities by our presence, by the pursuit of our ongoing operations, that I think disrupt and make it difficult for them to pursue their unilateral objectives.”

One of the main reasons for that is the location of the US base, in an area where Jordan, Iraq, and Syria all meet. If not for the American presence there and their 55- kilometre “deconfliction zone” that prevents non-US allies from entering, it is likely that Iran would turn the area into part of its land bridge from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean.

Brian Katulis from the Center for American Progress, said: “One quiet rationale for maintaining a presence there is to at least monitor and then perhaps deter some of the Iranian forces, or Iranian-backed forces that may have used that part of the country to transit into Syria.”

However, the base cannot entirely stop Iran’s involvement in Syria as it also uses planes to transport troops, weapons, and money to their proxy groups who are fighting on behalf of Assad.

Still, the US can mount drone operations, conduct surveillance, and create human intelligence networks from its position. Its presence is also comforting to US ally Jordan, whose officials are concerned about border security if the US leaves.

Katulis said: “As small as that [U.S.] presence is; I think it sends a signal.”

Michael O'Hanlon, a senior defence fellow at the Brookings Institution, advised that the base was having a positive effect by ensuring that Iran was not the only foreign actor present in Syria, which creates alternative power centres.

But he did express concern about the future of the US in Syria once ISIS is defeated.

He said: “We’re sort of in a transition phase, where you can still sustain the current effort on the grounds of it being anti-ISIS, but everyone recognizes that the days of that argument carrying the day are numbered.”