US military closes outpost in southeastern Syria, ceding territory to Iranian proxies
By THOMAS GIBBONS-NEFF | The Washington Post | Published: September 19, 2017
The U.S. military acknowledged it has closed an outpost in southern Syria in recent days amid reports that American forces and their contingent of Syrian proxies had pulled out from an important base in the area.
The decision to vacate the outpost, a small barrier-walled compound just miles from the Syria-Iraq border called Zakaf, appeared to represent a tacit acknowledgement that U.S.-backed forces will now be in an increasingly difficult position to recapture a series of strategically important border towns where the Islamic State's most senior leaders have been sighted in recent months.
The closure also effectively cedes more territory to Iranian-sponsored Shiite militias that have pushed toward the Euphrates River Valley in recent months. The pro-Syrian government forces, equipped with armored vehicles and pickup trucks, came dangerously close to U.S.-backed Syrian fighters over the summer. Their proximity sparked multiple incidents that included strafing runs on the militias by American aircraft and the shooting down of two Iranian-built drones, one of which occurred near the base at Zakaf.
Col. Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in the region and said over email that the "decision to establish and close temporary bases is determined by operational requirements and the progress of the campaign."
"Throughout Syria and Iraq, the Coalition has established and closed numerous bases, as warranted by the operational situation, in order to ensure we provide effective support to our partner forces," he said.
Dillon added that coalition troops and their Syrian partner forces — known as the Maghawir al-Thawra — are still located at Tanf, a larger outpost roughly 45 miles away from Zakaf that acts as a gateway to the Syria-Iraq-Jordan tri-border crossing to the south. It is unclear if the closure of the base as the result of a July deal reached by Jordan, Russia and Syria or further unreported discussions between the countries.
Zakaf was constructed this summer and Maghawir al-Thawra posted multiple pictures of the outpost to its media arm showing U.S.-led coalition forces mingling among their fighters and boasted to news outlets about its key location. The small fortification appeared to be an effort by the U.S.-led coalition and Maghawir al-Thawra forces to extend their presence closer to Bukamal, an Islamic State controlled key border town that U.S.-backed forces, then called the New Syrian Army, tried to liberate in June 2016.
The offensive stalled and ultimately failed, forcing the Syrian fighters to retreat across the desert to Tanf. Since their defeat, the New Syrian Army changed its name, was re-equipped and re-trained by British and U.S. Special Operations Forces and quietly began pushing back toward Bukamal.
Over the summer, however, the Syrian Army and its Iranian-backed proxies effectively cut off the U.S.-backed forces from any overland approach to Bukamal, bypassing the coalition's outposts at Tanf and Zakaf and linking up with their Iraqi-counterparts at the Iraqi border. Since then U.S. officials have said that the Maghawir al-Thawra fighters will likely have to be airlifted into the Euphrates River Valley if they're going to fight the Islamic State.
The shuttering of Zakaf comes as another U.S. proxy group, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, continues to make gains in the northern Euphrates River Valley and in the Islamic State's de-facto capital of Raqqa. Roughly 70 percent of the city has been retaken from the militant group as the urban battle stretches into its third month. The SDF has also recently pushed south of Raqqa toward the ISIS-held city of Deir al-Zour.
On Friday, the Pentagon accused Russia of bombing the SDF. While Russia did not take responsibility for the attack, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Joseph Dunford spoke with his Russian counterpart on Saturday and agreed to closer military discussions to ensure U.S.-backed fighters and Syrian and Russian forces avoid each other in the increasingly congested area.
The Washington Post's Louisa Loveluck in Beirut and Zakaria Zakaria in Istanbul contributed to this report.