men on ridge
© UnknownJordanian Forces and US Marines
The U.S. drone that struck on a bustling Baghdad evening on Feb. 7, 2024, instantly killed its target - three men in a Jeep. Among those who died were two commanders of an Iran-aligned militia whose commander had been assassinated in Baghdad four years earlier by the U.S. drone that also killed Qasem Soleimani, Iran's most important general. Bystander videos shot in the Mashtal neighborhood of the Iraqi capital just after the latest strike showed only a burning vehicle. The pinpoint assassination appeared even more audacious for having been executed during rush hour.

The targeting was part of a sequence of U.S. operations responding to a Jan. 28, 2024, drone attack that killed three Americans in a U.S. facility known as Tower 22 tucked into the Jordanian side of the border with Syria. The assailants believed to belong to Kataib Hezbollah, the same Iraqi Shi'ite militia whose members were killed in Baghdad, managed to overcome the base's aerial defenses by using an Iranian-made Shahed-101 drone to drift over the base in the wake of a returning American drone. Besides the three killed, the attack wounded more than 40 soldiers. They were the first U.S. casualties since the Oct. 7, 2023, Hamas attack on Israel plunged the region into a new crisis.

Few knew of the existence of Tower 22 before the U.S. deaths. Likely identified as a "military border post" in an agreement concluded between Jordan and the U.S. in 2021, the installation was revealed by satellite images to include more than 200 buildings, parking space for ten drones, and a soccer pitch. The base also includes engineering, aviation, logistics, and security elements, according to the Military Times, housed up to 350 American soldiers and is a crossing point into Syria and a nearby U.S. Special Forces garrison at Tanf, according to retired general Joseph Votel, a former head of U.S. Central Command. While the Waleed border crossing is used to resupply U.S. bases in Syria in the Deir Ezzor and Jazira regions, Tanf depends on Tower 22.
© Unknown
A Jordanian who asked not to be named said:
"This base is a big secret in Jordan. We all know that there are American forces stationed in Jordan, but it's unspoken knowledge, which is why the Jordanian government went on a propaganda campaign to deny the station existed there, even after the U.S. said they were hit in Jordan."
The Jordanian government's initial denial was in line with a longstanding policy of underplaying Western alliances due to the anti-American views of its majority Palestinian population. A major non-NATO U.S. ally since 1996, Jordan became the third-largest recipient of American foreign military aid in 2015. In 2021, it granted the Pentagon "unimpeded access" to certain facilities, and reportedly pressured Washington to remain in Syria as a shield against the expansion of drugs and arms-smuggling networks. Jordanian parliamentarians called for an end to the U.S. military presence in the aftermath of the Jan. 28 attacks.

The strike on Tower 22 highlighted the role of Tanf, which occupies a strategic corner in a turbulent region. Tanf stands at the center of a U.S. military ecosystem that supports Syrian tribal fighters, interdicts arms and drugs-smuggling militias, and seeks to create a Ukraine-style imbroglio for Russia, according to American, Arab, Russian, and U.N. officials and analysts interviewed for this article. The Israeli invasion of Gaza only turbocharged the region's complexity, with increasing Israeli air raids on Iran-aligned militias, prompting further targeting of U.S. troops. There have been more than 100 attacks on U.S. installations in Syria since Oct. 7.
© Unknown
Bestriding the M2 highway connecting Baghdad to Damascus, Tanf was established in 2016 as an outpost for international forces fighting ISIS but evolved and expanded after the Islamic State's defeat to try to counter the Iranian project of establishing a land bridge to the Mediterranean. Like Turkish forces, but unlike Russian and Iranian ones, the Americans installed themselves without the invitation - and indeed, expressly against the wishes — of the Syrian government. While the U.S. has avoided military action against Damascus, it did shell Syrian troops who tried and failed in 2017 to re-extend state control to the border with Iraq.

Tanf's positioning a few kilometers from the Waleed Iraq-Syria border crossing and at the center of a 55km-radius deconfliction zone with the Russian military, allows it to act as an intelligence listening post on Russian and Iranian activity, a deterrent to pro-Iranian militias, a bulwark for Jordan within Syria, a guard against ISIS recurrence, and a safe passage and decoy used by Israeli fighter-jets approaching Syria on bombing raids that Tel Aviv prefers to deny.

Chas Freeman, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Pentagon official, told this analyst:
"In international relations, declared policy and actual policy are seldom identical. The U.S. presence in Syria has many objectives, only one of which is combating Islamic extremists. It also supports the Israeli objectives of fragmenting and weakening Syria and interdicting Iran's supply lines to Hezbollah and the Assad government."
Unlike the other American bases in Syria, the garrison at Tanf marks America's only presence west of the Euphrates in areas otherwise controlled by Damascus. Tanf has hosted Jordanian and British special forces and is collocated with a U.S.-trained and equipped Syrian militia and Latin American contractors.

A 2017 deconfliction agreement with Russia informally apportioned Syrian airspace used by both the U.S. and Russia. One consequence was that Israeli jets began using U.S.-controlled areas as a corridor for bombing runs inside Syria. In 2017, the Syrians reclaimed the Abu Kamal border post further north and pressed it into service as a gateway for Iranian weapons and Afghan recruits into Iran-trained militias. The development frustrated the U.S. project to disrupt the Tehran-Damascus axis, with some analysts arguing it invalidated the point of remaining in Syria. Others note that U.S. control over Waleed facilitates an Israeli focus on arms interdictions at Abu Kamal, continues to deny territory formerly held by ISIS from Iranians and Russians, and protects Israeli and Jordanian interests.

Withdrawal plans currently under discussion could end Tanf's mission.

U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford in an interview with the Iraqi-Kurdish news outlet Rudaw remarked:
"The Biden administration will not want to spend more money and send more military to Syria. In fact, it would like to reduce the resources for Syria, and senior officials like the President, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of State, and the head of the CIA will spend less time working on Syria because they're busy on higher-priority portfolios like Ukraine and Gaza."
If the attack on Tower 22 marks a qualitative improvement in the ability of militia groups to penetrate U.S. air defenses rather than a one-off, this could accelerate U.S. plans to withdraw or consolidate. Already there have been Jordanian calls for augmented U.S. air defense of the Kingdom, even as it is debated whether Tower 22's air defenses were temporarily disabled to permit the returning U.S. drone to land or were inadequate or remotely hacked.

Abbas Juma, a Syrian-Russian journalist and political commentator specializing in the Middle East, in an interview, said:
"Sow the wind and you'll reap a whirlwind. The Americans have learned how to destroy regimes and projects like ISIS, but they don't understand what to do with a network structure that is well-armed and prepared, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, Ansar Allah in Yemen, and Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq."
ISIS efforts to regroup in areas of the Syrian desert under the nominal control of the Syrian state are currently countered by a Syrian force founded by the U.S. and collocated with its Special Forces in the Tanf garrison. The US-trained militia deploys in the desert using fast, lightly armored vehicles that cover vast regions.

The militia has also taken over from the United Nations in providing services to a ramshackle refugee community of a few thousand Syrians banned by Jordanian authorities from entering the country on security grounds. The Rukban site was developed after 2014 in a no-man's land delineated by a double-berm erected by both sides to keep out infiltrators. Stranded in the desert and considered one of the most miserable places on Earth, the camp's residents numbered up to 70,000 at its peak. Straitened circumstances resulted in financial and physical insecurity, including child marriages, and increased recruitment by armed groups. Jordanian authorities repeatedly cited Rukban as the site of ISIS activity. Four car bombs attributed or claimed by ISIS militants targeted the Jordanian military or exploded inside the camp between 2016 and 2017 after which Amman declared its northern and eastern borders a closed military zone.

After central Syrian government control collapsed in 2011, Persian Gulf Arab states and then the U.S., Turkey, and Iran began sponsoring militias to exert control over strategic territories. Saudi Arabia and Qatar became influential patrons of anti-Syrian regime activity, splitting Syria into northern and southern zones of influence. Doha assumed control of the north through Turkey, and Riyadh the south, via Jordan. A Military Operations Command (MOC) was established in Amman, staffed by high-ranking military officials from 14 nations, including Israel, and reinforced in 2013 by Timber Sycamore, a CIA training program. Rebels were provided with weapons, intel, training, and operational advice, but were restricted in the kind of targets they could engage, giving rise to discontent fuelled by the feeling that they were there only to weaken the Syrian regime, rather than topple it.

The rise of ISIS and Russia's involvement in the Syrian conflict prompted Jordan and the MOC to ban rebels under its command from attacking Syrian government troops and instead confront a local ISIS affiliate. Following the defeat of ISIS by 2019, Washington remained in this strategic area controlling access to Syria from Iraq and Jordan.

Freeman, the former assistant secretary of defense, said:
"The US wasted at least $5 billion training anti-government insurgents in Syria, many of them Islamic extremists. The only result was a further loss of Syrian life and destruction of Syrian infrastructure and continuing civil strife in the country."
A contrasting perspective holds that the Tanf garrison can be the linchpin of an "offshore balancing" strategy for the U.S. in a renewed Cold War scenario with China and act as a re-entry point "for the return of the United States to the region."

Still, U.S. and Iranian exchanges in the aftermath of the Tower 22 incident showed that both sides are trying to avoid escalation.

Habib al-Badawi, a professor of international relations at the Lebanese University, who described himself as representing a Muslim Sunni perspective, said:
"Iran and Hezbollah appear hesitant to willingly engage in open conflict. Both entities harbor distinct strategic interests in the Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus-Beirut corridor, operating under a meticulous calculus that seemingly prioritizes sectarian gains."
Nevertheless, the Russian focus on Ukraine has resulted in Iran-linked militias occupying formerly Russian locations near Tanf. Washington's desire to hold these in check may be the reason why Tanf has survived two major drawdowns of U.S. forces in Syria and proves that the U.S. is not in Syria "only for oil," as former and perhaps future U.S. President Donald Trump famously claimed.

U.S. Major General Matt McFarlane, the commander of the Syria presence told the Wall Street Journal in March 2023:
"We have coalition soldiers here, U.S. presence here, who are continuing to enable our partners and continue with the fight against ISIS which we are making progress on over time. We are setting conditions to transition here in the future."
About the Author:
Iason Athanasiadis is a writer, documentary filmmaker, and former UN officer covering the Middle East.