January 28, 2024 - 7:30pm

Last night’s attack on the Syrian-Jordanian border by the Iranian-backed Islamic Resistance, in which three US soldiers were today announced killed, is a major escalation in the Middle East crisis. Politically, it will force Joe Biden to respond, while limiting his options to do so. 

The location of the attack — Tower 22, just inside the Jordanian border and south of the Rukban refugee camp in southern Syria — functions as a support base for US troops in the al-Tanf garrison (ATG), a 55-kilometre wide “deconfliction zone” under American control since 2016. Back in the heyday of the war against Islamic State, al-Tanf served as an operations base to train and equip the US-backed New Syrian Army rebel group, whose only major operation against Isis ended in humiliating failure. Yet since the fall of Isis, the US maintained its presence in the isolated base, ostensibly as part of the anti-Isis campaign but quietly concerned with wider geopolitical aims.  As John Bolton boasted in his memoirs, the al-Tanf mission was kept alive, despite military scepticism over its utility against Isis and Donald Trump’s desire to withdraw all US troops from Syria, precisely to frustrate Iranian regional aspirations.

Challenging growing US scepticism over its utility, a 2021 report from the neoconservative Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) asserts that the Tanf base serves the additional functions of “disrupting Iranian-aligned activities across the ‘land bridge’ from Iran to Lebanon” – that is, placing an obstacle in front of Iran’s funnelling of men and munitions overland to Israel’s already hard-pressed northern border — while also “creating leverage in negotiations regarding the future of Syria”. This means applying pressure on Bashar al-Assad to conclude the Syrian war in a way which is amenable to US interests. As WINEP notes, “US military officials are often loath to publicly acknowledge the second and third goals given concerns about the legal justification for America’s presence in Syria.” 

WINEP adds that the US presence at al-Tanf “has also proven useful to Israel’s ‘campaign between the wars’, which has reportedly included dozens of air missions against targets in Syria,” allowing Israel to strike IRGC and Hezbollah troop concentrations and munitions shipments inside Syria while evading Syrian anti-aircraft and early warning systems. Though a US facility, ATG thus serves Israel’s security needs, allowing Iranian-backed groups to strike a cheap and deadly double blow against their twin enemies.

Biden’s options to respond are limited. The viability of the wider US military presence in both Iraq and Syria is already a source of intense speculation as isolated US bases come under increased militia bombardment, with recent reports suggesting the US aims to both wind down its military presence in Iraq and withdraw from eastern Syria. The US, probably correctly, now assesses its troop presence in both countries as increasingly untenable within the context of the current Middle East war. But Biden will shrink from the perception of his being forced out of Syria by Iran and will be compelled to respond, with the White House pledging to “hold all those responsible to account in a time and manner our choosing”. 

Yet the US is also wrestling with the entirely contradictory aims of supporting Israel while dampening regional tensions, in a conflict which has already leapfrogged to the Red Sea in a manner America is struggling to deal with. Already under pressure from his own electoral base for his support of a war which half his 2020 voters now believe is genocidal, the widening crisis has drawn its first American blood, in a deployment at least partly undertaken for Israel’s benefit. 

US troops in the region are pinned down, isolated and forced to react defensively to an escalation cycle Iran currently dominates: exactly the same is true of their Commander-in-Chief, harried by events he can no longer adequately control.

Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.