By Suleiman Al-Khalidi
AMMAN, Dec 22 (Reuters) – U.S. troops have not left the strategic Tanf garrison on the Iraq-Jordan border following President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of Syria, the leader of a Pentagon-backed rebel group there said on Saturday.
Colonel Muhanad al Talaa, leader of Maghawir al-Thawra whose several hundred fighters work alongside U.S. troops at the Tanf camp, said although they were notified of Washington’s decision, the situation on the ground remained as it was.
“American troops plan to withdraw completely form Syria but I don’t have details and things are as they are up until this moment,” Talaa told Reuters from the base.
The garrison is located in a strategic area near Syria’s Tanf border crossing with Iraq at the crossroad of a main Baghdad-Damascus highway, Tehran’s main arms supply route by land to Syria and Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah militia.
Russia and the Syrian government have repeatedly called on Washington to pull its troops from the Tanf base, where it has declared a 55 km (35 mile)-radius “deconfliction zone” which has become a safe haven for at least 50,000 civilians, mostly women and children, who live in the Rukban camp within it.
The garrison was first set up when Islamic State fighters controlled eastern Syria bordering Iraq but since the militants were driven out, Tanf has assumed a role as part of a U.S. strategy to contain Iran’s military buildup in eastern Syria.
Tanf is the only position with a significant U.S. military presence in Syria outside the Kurdish-controlled north, where it has much larger air bases
Only several months ago, U.S. Marines held major rare exercises in the base in what Western military officials said was a strong message to Russia and Iran that the Americans and the rebels it supports intend to stay.
A western diplomatic source and a regional intelligence source told Reuters the decision to leave Tanf will not necessarily affect the broader U.S. strategy against Iran, where regional power Israel will continue its aerial strikes.
Israel has in the last year hit several suspected Iranian-backed militia convoys and bases near Tanf where Iran’s proxies are expanding their foothold, especially in the city of AlBukamal to the northeast of the base, another intelligence source involved in Syria said.
Washington’s decision means an even bleaker future for these camp dwellers for whom the camp was a safe haven as many fear retribution if they return back to their towns in Syrian government-controlled areas in eastern Syria, residents say.
(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi Editing by Alexander Smith)