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The Gaza war draws its first American blood

A US soldier takes part in the "Eager Lion" multinational military manoeuvres in Jordan in 2022. Credit: Getty

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.

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Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
5 months ago

“They shouldn’t have been there in the first place”.
Additionally the ‘ATG’ is a completely illegal occupation of the territory of a sovereign state (Syria).

Would the US countenance it if Mexico set up a AFG in Texas, or would Israel permit Jordan to set up one up ? No, off course not, the double standards here are absolutely disgraceful.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
5 months ago

And the UK shouldn’t be carrying out airstrikes on Yemen or have RN ships in the entrance to the Red Sea.
Both achieve nothing of consequence and merely risk Britain being dragged into a conflict where no vital national interests are threatened.

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
5 months ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

Agree. Use the melting Arctic. And as for precision strikes, remember the Falklands airfield?

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
5 months ago

I think you will get widespread agreement on this sentiment.

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
5 months ago

Well said. And might these American troops not be more usefully deployed to Texas at the moment?

El Uro
El Uro
5 months ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

Undoubtedly! After all, someone must suppress the rebellious Texas, following Biden’s orders

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
5 months ago

Looks like my reply has gone onto the naughty step…
No idea why…it merely said that Britain has no vital national interests being threatened and airstrikes are ineffective…

Simon Boudewijn
Simon Boudewijn
5 months ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

you have to sing with the choir to stay here, no going off solo. They do not remove posts unless you deserved it, (or you say something they think is wrong). (haha)

A D Kent
A D Kent
5 months ago

I find my comments seem to come and go here throughout the day. I too have pointed out the limited national interest of getting involved in the Middle East/West Asia for the UK and they tend to go. As do any including the word ‘Hannibal’ – they do come back, but generally only after the commenting mass have moved onto the next (usually neocon) article here.

A D Kent
A D Kent
5 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

As a case in point my comment that these were not the first American deaths in the area since October 7th has gone. I pointed out that they were only the first not caused by the Israelis with a link to a new article of a 17 year old US citizen shot in the West Bank – we’ll see if it comes back. The US have done nothing about their dead teenager by the way – probably he’s in the same State Department files as Gonzalo Lira now.

El Uro
El Uro
5 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

A 17-year-old American citizen on the West Bank throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers is undoubtedly a terrible loss for America, comparable only to 09/11

Andrew Dalton
Andrew Dalton
5 months ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

It’s WordPress mostly likely.
This isn’t Unherd’s own software, it’s WordPress, which has various mechanisms for automating moderation that may result in human intervention correcting it later.
Anyone who has posted here long enough will have had posts removed, even absolutely innocuous ones – it will probably reappear at some point.

Simon Boudewijn
Simon Boudewijn
5 months ago

”Shouldn’t have been there in the first place”

OK, I agree very much, I mean we created ISIS in the Occupation Prison Camps of Iraq, and then things went downhill from there.

BUT….. that was then, and the real way to put it is.. We should Not have remained there. And then ‘We should not be there’

When you make a terrible mistake – like say getting into the Ukraine thing, then keep doubling down, and just keep the doubling down till the inevitable result is when it crashes – well then it is 100 times worse. That is the thing.

” Should have not stayed there” Should have walked away from the table after the first 12 lost hands, not remained by gambling your house away till you finally have to slink off.

A D Kent
A D Kent
5 months ago

Quite right – but as Alexander Mercouris of The Duran has been pointing out for many years now – the Neocons have no reverse gear. I’d love to see the likes of him talking to Freddy Sayers by the way. I think that kind of thing would fit nicely into Unherd’s mission statement, although thats assuming that it’s not just flannel.

Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
5 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

Indeed. The Duran has been a voice of sanity in the desolate media landscape for some time now and certainly fits into the category of ‘Unherd’.

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
5 months ago

The King of Jordan is adamant that they were killed in Syria. Where the American bases are illegal, and where people have been trying to kill their residents since long before the war in Gaza.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
5 months ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

Gulf of Tonkin springs readily to mind…

A D Kent
A D Kent
5 months ago

 The premise of this article is factually wrong – these
are not the first Americans to be killed in the regions since October 7th. Perhaps Unherd can update both the title and the article. They were just the first deaths not to have been caused by Israelis.

https://www.cbsnews.com/news/us-teen-fatally-shot-west-bank/

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
5 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

Maybe this should read from 7 October onwards…. There have been plenty Americans killed by other than Israel.

R Wright
R Wright
5 months ago

Americans really are fools for falling for the age old imperial mistake of overstretch. Having military bases in Syria years after the end of ISIS is just arrogance.

Warren Francisco
Warren Francisco
5 months ago
Reply to  R Wright

I’m honestly curious about the sentiment I see repeated in the comments here about “illegal” US bases and the “arrogance” as you call it. Clearly there is a security concern that inspires both the left and the right leaning politicians in the US to keep these outposts operating. Wouldn’t we all rather have the US acting as the police in the region over Russia and Iran’s interests?

El Uro
El Uro
5 months ago

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
Idiocy is a very contagious disease

Jürg Gassmann
Jürg Gassmann
5 months ago

If Iran was really behind this action, maybe Iran is following the Western brainiacs’ strategy “escalate to de-escalate” – in other words, “stop your ever mounting adventurism because if you don’t here’s what we can do to you … and this is just a taste.”
Our generals and politicians swear the strategy works. Let’s see whether it does.