In what represents the biggest change to America’s use of force in Syria, U.S. forces have, on three separate occasions, struck Syrian government-allied militias. The incidents happened near Tanf, a border town seized by Syrian rebel groups trained in Jordan from the self-proclaimed Islamic State, or ISIL, in March 2016. In all three cases, we are told, the strikes were nothing more than force protection measures and didn’t signify a major change in U.S. policy. U.S. General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made this point on May 19, just one day after the first strike, telling reporters, “That was a force protection strike. Our commanders on the ground felt like they were threatened at that point. And their rules of engagement allow them to do that.”
Yet, despite efforts to portray these strikes as one-off reactions to Syrian backed provocations, the attacks risk expanding the goals of the military campaign, currently aimed solely at defeating the Islamic State. America’s use of military force appears to be unfolding independent of any broader strategic or political guidance. It is not clear how these actions align with broader foreign policy goals. This lack of clarity allows tactical decisions (i.e., the need to protect U.S. forces) to dictate strategy. In this case, the purported link between the militias struck and Iran, the most important backer of Syria’s Bashar al Assad, risks a broader escalation — perhaps one that some hawkish voices in the Trump administration would welcome.
Since taking office, the Trump administration has adopted a more aggressive approach to Iran. In mid-April, Eli Lake, a columnist with Bloomberg, wrote about a debate within the White House over escalating the U.S. military’s presence along the Euphrates River, a main connection between Syria and Iraq. The outline of the debate, as Lake describes it, is similar to a more detailed study published by the Institute for the Study of War and the American Enterprise Institute. It calls for the U.S. military to take the border town of Bukamal, a small town in the eastern Syrian desert on the border with Iraq. This garrison, in turn, would be used to build a Sunni Arab majority partner force, first to clear the Euphrates River Valley, to put pressure on Iran, and to undercut the broader support for jihadist elements within the broader anti-Assad opposition.
This reported debate about escalation has moved in parallel to a second effort linked to Russia. According to The Wall Street Journal, “The Trump administration is exploring ways to break Russia’s military and diplomatic alliance with Iran in a bid to both end the Syrian conflict and bolster the fight against Islamic State…” Former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn reportedly pushed the Pentagon to expand a long-standing channel with Russia designed to de-conflict operations in Syrian airspace to jointly strike at ISIL. This proposal would have violated U.S. law, but nevertheless fits a broader pattern of Trump administration outreach to Russia to cooperate more closely on the ISIL fight.
As the world’s preeminent military power, the United States retains options to escalate its involvement in the Syrian civil conflict, either through an increased ground presence to train more fighters, or to use the threat of military force to try and compel Syria and its backers to change their policies. However, as should be obvious in the post-9/11 world, the use of military force is far from cost-free and entails a series of trade-offs that reverberate around the world. As such, the costs of any proposed actions aimed at achieving a tactical objective (i.e., the training of more partner forces or compelling changes in Iranian behavior) should be weighed against the expected risk of the proposed actions. This calculus must also take into account whether these costs are worth it to achieve strategic objectives, linked to Syria, Iran, and Russia.
On the other side of the Syria-Iraq border, the United States has ample experience trying to simultaneously fight Shia militias and the antecedents to the Islamic State. Current and former U.S. military leaders — including those now serving in President Donald Trump’s cabinet — should be uniquely positioned to understand the resource requirements needed to sustain such a two-pronged offensive.
The history of this effort in Iraq, however, underscores the serious challenges the United States would face, should it decide to expand the objectives of the current counter-ISIL operation to include Shia militias. Further still, it is unclear how any such expansion of the objectives would serve broader U.S. interests in Syria or the Middle East. In other words, increased pressure on Iranian backed affiliates should be wedded to an obtainable policy outcome congruent with a regional strategy, and not simply deployed as a tactic to defend a garrison in the Syrian desert, or, worse, just to look tough to win as yet unarticulated concessions down the line.
In Tanf, the opposite is happening. Tactics are driving strategy, risking an ill-thought out escalation with no articulated policy goal. To define a strategy for Tanf — and to weigh the costs of escalation with Iran — policymakers should take into account the restraints on U.S. forces, the expected costs/risks that escalation entails, the intentions of Russia and Iran in Syria, and whether U.S. actions will contribute to the defeat of ISIL. Given the power and prominence of current and former U.S. military leaders who commanded forces in Iraq, the American people should expect and demand better from the Trump administration.
Taking Tanf: How We Got Here
The efforts in Tanf seem to be linked to broader initiatives to capture a key ISIL hub, Bukamal and other towns along the Euphrates River, and protect a garrison being used to train rebels. For Iran and the Syrian regime, Tanf sits on a highway, linking Damascus with Baghdad. The town, therefore, is an important overland route for the movement of men and materiel between two different theaters of Iran’s war in Syria and Iraq, and even extending into Lebanon. This also makes the town valuable for the United States and its broader efforts to take control of the Syrian-Iraqi border, in order to prevent ISIL from being able to cross between the adjoining Iraqi and Syrian desert.
The United States has had forces near Tanf since at least March 2016. That month, U.S.-backed militia groups moved across the border with support from the anti-ISIL coalition. The execution of the raid was straightforward: seize an important border crossing to cut off Islamic State supply lines to Iraq, and then train partner forces to move north towards al Bukamal. The U.S. presence with groups fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army near Tanf is part of the train and equip program, or so-called 1209 authorities, detailed in the National Defense Authorization Act (FY 2015). The 1209 authorities allow for U.S. assistance to aid in the defense of territory controlled by partner forces. But the authorization for the provision of lethal aid names only the Islamic State, and not other adversaries like the Syrian regime or allied actors. This debate has yet to be settled, as the three Tanf strikes clearly demonstrate.
The Trump administration has expanded the U.S. footprint at this garrison to accelerate the training of local forces in the area. As of July 2016, U.S. Special Forces, British Special Air Service, and other allied forces would, reportedly, not spend the night at the facility, and instead spend much of their time in Jordan. Less than a year later, in May 2017, U.S. Special Forces were reportedly spending “days at a time” at the facility, a detail that suggests a permanent presence of soldiers rotating through the base.
The operational imperatives to train forces in Tanf and then move on al Bukamal is easy to understand. However, the now permanent U.S. presence has prompted counter-escalatory measures by Iranian/Assad regime forces, which in turn has led to three U.S. airstrikes against these forces. This leaves a rather important question unanswered: Now what? And, building on this, how does the answer to this question fit with the concurrent effort to find common cause with Russia on steps forward in Syria? And, does a coercive strategy aimed at Iranian affiliated militias contribute to this goal?
The Russia Connection: Questioning Key Assumptions
The Trump administration’s efforts to work with Russia are broadly analogous to the Obama administration’s outreach to Moscow to try and find common cause about the future of Bashar al Assad. The key difference is that the Trump administration has tied its more aggressive approach towards Iran to its broader Russia policy. The Trump administration, therefore, has sought to use a shared interest in counter-terrorism as a carrot to incentivize a change in Moscow’s relationship with Iran, a strategy that suggests three key assumptions. First, Russia is amenable to a broader policy shift in the Middle East, wherein Moscow would be open to cooperation with the United States, rather than viewing Washington as a competitor for regional influence. Second, Russia is able to bring sufficient leverage to bear on Assad to compel changes in regime behavior. Third, Russian and Iranian goals in Syria are divergent enough to allow the United States to split the two parties.
Unfortunately for the White House, none of these assumptions withstand scrutiny. The history of Russian actions in Syria since its direct intervention in the conflict in October 2015 suggests that the Trump administration has failed to accurately gauge Moscow’s intentions in Syria. This is something the Obama administration — and Secretary of State John Kerry in particular — struggled with as well. Russia and Iran are symbiotic actors in Syria, and depend on one another to achieve the shared objective of defeating the anti-Assad insurgency. According to Michael Kofman, an analyst at the CNA Corporation and a War on the Rocks contributor, Russia’s intent is “to shape the Syrian opposition on the ground, by eliminating those parts of it that it finds disagreeable at the negotiating table…” This is not to suggest that Iran and Russia always see eye-to-eye about tactics and operations in Syria. They don’t. But the military reality is that Russia is supporting its coalition partners — the Assad regime, Hizballah, and Iran — in their efforts to take more and more territory inside Syria, a goal that serves the interests of each member of this coalition. Russian and Iranian gains on the ground could increase their leverage for any future peace accord.
For now, Moscow can’t bring enough pressure to bear on Tehran, lest it risk its broader efforts to shore up the regime’s war effort. Iran is a key enabler of this effort. The Trump administration has convinced itself that going after Iran could, in turn, put pressure on Moscow. This, however, overlooks the fact that both sides, in the short term, have tools to counter-escalate against U.S. interests, and have mutual interest in doing so.
Around Tanf, the strikes have reinforced a 55-kilometer no-go-zone in the Syrian desert. The Assad-linked groups, however, have counter-escalated and taken territory north of the zone out to the Iraq border. The immediate outcome is that the Tanf garrison is now surrounded by hostile forces. The U.S. forces in the area would have to fight through regime positions to get to al Bukamal, further risking escalation.
What now? Is the United States prepared to protect these forces in perpetuity? Will the U.S. provide air cover for forces that clash directly with regime allied assets outside of the 55-kilometer zone? Did the previous three strikes prompt a counter-escalatory act that undermined U.S. interests? Sadly, the answer to the last question is yes. Today, the United States must now mull using more military force, or abandon a garrison under pressure from Iranian backed groups. This, of course, would undercut U.S. leverage and could strengthen arguments for more U.S. military action to restore credibility or to gain leverage.
Constraints on U.S. Action: Lessons from Iraq and Challenges in Syria
The escalation ladder is unfavorable for broader U.S. interests in Syria. The United States would face a series of constraints, should the “escalation with Iran to gain leverage to dictate outcomes in Syria” scenario come to fruition. The U.S. Special Operations Forces are overstretched. According to Gen. Raymond Thomas of Special Operations Command, “Most SOF [special operations forces] units are employed to their sustainable limit, while some are consistently under that goal.” The same is true of the Air Force, where as recently as 2013, “About 10 percent of airmen who deployed were facing deploy-dwell rates of about 1:1, meaning they were spending almost as long at war as they were at home,” according to The Air Force Times.
This ratio improved in recent years, as combat operations in Afghanistan decreased. However, this coincided with the start of Operation Inherent Resolve, which strained the deploy-to-dwell ratio of “enlisted airmen such as airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operators, in-flight refuelers.” All of these positions are needed to support an airpower centric war. Thus, any expansion of the current war to include a broader set of objectives would result in further taxing U.S. forces — and tax finite military resources that could be employed elsewhere in the world.
The United States also has ample experience from its involvement in Iraq (between 2003 and 2011). This experience helps to understand the challenges of fighting two asymmetric threats at once with different elements from the special operations community. At the height of the insurgency in Iraq, the effort to disrupt and destroy the Islamic State’s predecessor, the Islamic State of Iraq, was left to a specialized special operations task force, dubbed Task Force 16 (TF16), which was in charge of overseeing a high-tempo operations. This specialized unit went directly after the jihadist network. To address the increased threat from Iran, the United States created a separate Task Force, known as Task-Force 17 (TF17), to go after elements of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp and its allied proxies in Iraq. TF17 was made up of Army Special Forces.
The two task forces, in turn, had to compete for the same pool of resources to fight the different elements of the Iraqi insurgency. The war against Al Qaeda in Iraq, and later the Islamic State of Iraq, took precedence, weakening TF17. Further still, the political sensitivities in Iraq resulted in an approvals process that required signoff from Gen. David Petraeus, then the commanding general in Iraq, before conducting raids. In other instances, former Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki would intervene, demanding that TF17 turn over captured IRGC members to Iraqi authorities, who then promptly sent them back to Iran.
In Syria, the United States has established a structure similar to TF17. A specialized Special Operations Task Force is conducting high-value raids to target and find Islamic State networks. The Special Forces element, Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force (CJSOTF), is more focused on training local forces — and is now present in Tanf and elsewhere throughout Syria. Thus, one potential problem with escalation against Iranian elements is that the training of partner forces would slow, as CJSOTF was tasked with an expanded set of objectives. The comparison to Iraq differs in one key area: The U.S. approach in Syria is dependent on the “by, with, through” approach.” This approach is dependent on local actors, and thus gives the Assad regime ample flexibility to attack U.S. affiliated groups, or counter-escalate in ways that are detrimental to the U.S.-led counter-ISIL fight, as was recently the case. The Syrian regime’s actions are, for now, inconsequential for the main fight against Islamic State in Raqqa. But, should the regime choose to attack U.S.-backed elements in other parts of Syria, the United States would have to choose whether to escalate its involvement by striking regime assets to defend its forces fighting to take Raqqa.
Tactics without Strategy
The larger issue is that the tactics used to defeat the Islamic State are dictating policy choices — and these tactics are independent of a broader Iran strategy. On three different occasions, the military, using pre-delegated authorities, struck regime-allied and Iranian backed elements in or near the exclusion zone. This exclusion zone, in turn, is linked to a narrowly defined effort to take two Syrian border towns. The absence of policy is startling, as are the calls to expand the U.S. effort to include countering Iranian-backed groups, without any semblance of debate about the costs of an expansion of the current U.S. war.
Tanf is certain to remain a potential flashpoint. The U.S.-operated garrison in the area is surrounded by hostile forces. Russia has little incentive — or capability — to reign in the Iranian backed groups active in the area. The regime has tools to counter-escalate, and Iran could harass U.S. forces indefinitely. This is, ultimately, a failure to articulate clear goals for U.S. military action.
As a first step, the United States has to articulate a clear policy goal in Syria, independent of the war against ISIL. What is it that the United States is fighting for, and how would escalation with Iran impact these goals? Trump, like his predecessor, has directed the military to focus exclusively on defeating the Islamic State. Iran is an important actor in Syria and remains hostile to broader American interests in the region. However, Tanf should not lead to mission creep, or a pathway to a greater American military presence in the area.
Strategy should drive tactics when it comes to handling Iranian-backed elements in Syria, not the other way around. Otherwise, the United States risks upending other elements of the war effort in Syria for ill-defined reasons. This may include expanding the role of an already over stretched Special Operations Command and more wear and tear on other elements of the U.S. military — all for ill-defined and unachievable goals. The United States has the capability to defend a garrison in the Syrian desert. However, the reasons for doing so are devoid of any purpose, making a simple cost benefit analysis all but impossible.
Aaron Stein is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.