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"Area 55: The Untold Story of US Strategy in Syria's Desert Frontier"

2023-04-13 23:59

Issam Khoury

"Area 55: The Untold Story of US Strategy in Syria's Desert Frontier"

The visit of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the US Army, General Mark Milley, [1] to an American base in Syria [2] on March 4, 2023, preceded a

The visit of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the US Army, General Mark Milley, [1] to an American base in Syria [2] on March 4, 2023, preceded a congressional vote on March 8, 2023. The draft resolution, proposed by Republican Representative Matthew Gaetz, [3] aimed to withdraw US forces from Syria. General Milley's visit may have contributed to the failure of this project, as 321 representatives opposed it, 103 approved it, and 11 ignored it. [4]

The American presence in Syria has been a topic of in-depth discussion in US diplomatic circles, especially following the closure of the "Military MOC room" supporting Syrian opposition forces in southern Syria in early December 2017. [5] Furthermore, President Trump's controversial statement regarding the need to withdraw American forces from northeastern Syria on December 18, 2018, which he soon retracted, led to the White House announcing on February 25, 2019, Washington's intention to maintain a small peacekeeping group of 200 American soldiers in Syria for an unspecified period.

American deployment areas

US military bases are located in two primary regions: the Autonomous Administration of Northeast Syria and the Al-Tanf base, [6] also known as Area 55. The media tends to focus on the American presence in northeastern Syria's Autonomous Administration region while overlooking the Al-Tanf region. The main reasons for this include:

• Ongoing Turkish-Kurdish disputes and the Turkish threat to invade northeastern Syria's Autonomous Administration area. • The presence of significant underground and agricultural resources in northeastern Syria. • The fact that northeastern Syria's regions have better institutional administration than the Syrian regime. • The existence of a Kurdish national connection between Iraq's Kurdistan region and northeastern Syria. • The presence of Arab-Kurdish national rivalry in the area. • Frequent armed clashes between the SDF forces and Ankara-backed National Army. • The existence of detention centers for ISIS fighters. • The presence of numerous Syrian Democratic Forces, making them a competing force for the Syrian Army. • US-Russian competition over the region.

Accurate information regarding the American military presence at the Al-Tanf base, where international coalition forces are stationed, is unavailable. However, it is estimated that approximately 200 American soldiers and an unknown number of British soldiers are present. Area 55, home to the Al-Tanf base, lacks factors that would make it attractive to the media, as it is a barren region in the Syrian desert inhabited by only a few Arab tribes. For decades, the Syrian regime neglected this area. Regrettably, the region did not receive support from the United Nations or the International Coalition Forces to assist civilians residing in the Rukban camp. [7] This lack of support has made Rukban one of the worst Syrian refugee camps in terms of providing services to its inhabitants.

The International Coalition Forces are not legally obligated to provide relief support to the residents of Area 55, as their primary mission is to combat terrorism. This focus has led them to concentrate on training the Syrian Free Army, which serves as the mobile military force on the ground to fight the terrorist organization known as the Islamic State.

The Syrian Free Army, formerly known as the "Army of the Revolution Commandos," is a small military organization comprising around 500 fighters displaced from the governorates of Deir Ezzor, Damascus, Homs, and Daraa. Colonel Muhannad al-Talaa established the organization in 2014, and several small military formations from the Badia region and the countryside of Homs joined in 2015. Among the most notable is the "Al-Qaryatayn Martyrs Brigade," led by Captain Muhammad Farid Al-Qasim. In 2022, Al-Talaa was dismissed from his leadership role in the Revolutionary Commandos, and Al-Qasim was appointed to lead the newly named “Syrian Free Army.”


Notably, the Syrian Free Army operates covertly, with the names of its commanders hidden from the media. This secrecy is supported by the International Coalition Forces, which do not want to disclose information about their connections with field commanders. Captain Muhammad Farid al-Qasim[8] is the only central figure who appears publicly, while civilian figures manage crossings and coordinate with the Syrian Free Army.

The Syrian Free Army's military activities are limited to the coalition's efforts to fight ISIS, keeping the army from engaging the Syrian regime. After ISIS, its second opponent might be Shiite militias backed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, but the Free Army remains committed to avoiding clashes with them. In February 2023, for example, several Syrian civilians collecting truffles were killed in the Syrian desert. Although the Fatimid Brigade, supported by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, was openly accused of the killings, the Syrian Free Army did not confront the brigade.

Additionally, the Al-Tanf base was targeted by several missiles launched by Shiite militias backed by Tehran. Instead of initiating a ground military response, the Free Syrian Army's retaliation came in the form of airstrikes carried out by international coalition aircraft. The Importance of Area 55 Area 55 is so named because it extends for 55 miles around the Al-Tanf base, a distance sufficient to prevent shoulder-fired missiles from reaching the base. Established by the International Coalition Forces in 2016, the Al-Tanf base holds strategic importance due to its location at the intersection of the Iraqi, Jordanian, and Syrian borders. This enables the base to monitor all vehicles traveling from Iraq towards Syria, significantly reducing the logistical support available to the terrorist organization ISIS between the two countries.

The military base has also played a role in monitoring the Iranian military supply network for its militias by land, leading to the destruction of many of them through raids carried out by Israeli aircraft committed to halting Iranian expansion in Syria. Consequently, Iranian media portrays this base as an advanced intelligence outpost for Israel near the Iraqi province of Anbar, while the American side insists that it is solely focused on combating the Islamic State.

The American Chief of Staff's Visit to Syria The visit of the American Chief of Staff to Syria demonstrated the United States' commitment to eradicating terrorism. This commitment necessitates an increase in the number of American soldiers and a diversification of their expertise to form a cohesive Syrian military team capable of managing battles against extremist cells.

Building a Successful Alliance In our opinion, the success of this endeavor relies on the formation of an effective alliance between the "Syrian Free Army" and the "Syrian Democratic Forces." The Arab military units within the Syrian Democratic Forces are not in genuine agreement with the Kurdish military leaders, and some Arab clan fighters have connections to relatives of fighters affiliated with the Turkish-backed National Army forces, which reduces their loyalty to the Democratic Autonomous Administration project.

From this perspective, the best option for the Americans may be to link the Arab military wing involved in the Syrian Democratic Forces with the Syrian Free Army. However, this would require a land bridge between the two regions, which Tehran, with its militias deployed in the areas of Abu Kamal and Al-Mayadin, will not allow. The Israeli air force may play a role in paving the way by destroying Iranian bases in the region, provided that the Arab units take the initiative to fill the void.

Various Interests at Stake This military project serves the interests of several parties, including:

1. Israeli Interest: Having an Arab team committed to American decisions and preventing Iranian incursion into Syria will satisfy Tel Aviv and reduce the need for extensive surveillance efforts by Israeli intelligence. 2. Iraqi Interest: Iraq has long struggled to control the Iraqi-Syrian border and would benefit from the presence of Arab forces committed to counterterrorism decisions and monitored by the International Coalition. 3. Anti-Terrorism Interest: The presence of a Sunni Arab military team dedicated to combating terrorism on the Syrian-Iraqi border will eliminate any pretext created by Sunni extremist groups to mobilize their supporters and increase Sunni volunteer participation in combating such groups. 4. Arab Interest: Many Sunni-majority Arab governments are concerned about Iran's efforts to spread Shiism to control Arab governments. The presence of a non-extremist Sunni Arab wall will deter the extremist Shiite supply bridge between Iraq and Syria. 5. Syrian Interest: Syrian Sunnis are concerned about their fate due to increasing international support for the Kurdish side in northeastern Syria, improving relations between the Syrian regime and several Arab countries, and the absence of governance in Sunni areas supported by the Turks. Thus, the existence of a Sunni Arab region under the administrative control of the international coalition will provide an opportunity to develop the region and turn it into an Arab line of defense against the Persian incursion into Syria, prompting Arab countries to invest in its development and support for Syrians.


The Legitimacy of the American Presence in Syria

The American military presence in Syria is not legally justified, as the Syrian government did not submit a petition to the United States requesting assistance in combating terrorism. As previously explained, the American presence is crucial for the US allies in the Middle East and for US national security, which was threatened by major terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. The United States has based its military presence inside Syria on the doctrine of "anticipatory self-defense," [9] which assumes that the US is targeted and obligated to defend its interests, even if a UN member state does not permit the use of its territory. The US may be forced to violate the sovereignty of such lands because the member state is "unable or unwilling" to confront the threatening group. The Syrian regime criticizes this proposition and demands military and financial support to combat terrorism. However, this is contrary to US law, as the Syrian government and many of its generals, including its president, are subject to US Treasury sanctions. The US government cannot cooperate with the Syrian regime and must find alternatives. Since the US government is not legally empowered to overthrow the ruling regime in Damascus, it may be considered an occupying power despite its intention to combat terrorism. The only aspect legally permitting the United States to maintain a military presence in Syria, based on the doctrine of anticipatory self-defense guaranteed by Articles 51[10] and 50[11] of the United Nations Charter, is the appearance of an internationally recognized representative authority for the Syrians. This authority would need to request military protection or support from the United States. Realistically, the areas under the Autonomous Administration of northeastern Syria are not eligible to request such support, as they are still part of the Syrian government. However, if the area expands to include wider geographical areas under the authority of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, [12] this would legally allow the Syrian people to grant the United States the mandate to protect and be present in opposition areas. The National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces has been recognized as a representative body for the Syrian people by 114 countries since 2012. [13] From this perspective, the coalition forces led by the United States must seriously strive to create military units that unite the areas of the Autonomous Administration of northeastern Syria and those administratively affiliated with the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. This task is very challenging under the rule of President Erdogan, who is most hostile to the Kurdish forces in the Autonomous Administration areas. Therefore, an alliance between the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Syrian Free Army may serve as an initial step, potentially followed by broader moves toward the areas of the Euphrates Shield [14] and the Peace Spring, with the aim of eventually changing Turkish behavior after the upcoming Turkish elections.


[1] General Mark A. Milley is the 20th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the nation’s highest-ranking military officer, and the principal military advisor to the President, Secretary of Defense, and National Security Council. Prior to becoming Chairman on October 1, 2019, General Milley served as the 39th Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army. [2] The Wall Street Journal, By Gordon Lubold, March 04, 2023: https://www.wsj.com/articles/gen-mark-milley-in-syria-to-support-u-s-troops-676df9f0?fbclid=IwAR22JOPOhyqAiuZ7LoIKah9_IRH9kP-Iq7iRunH8OaKI3aq1ateYUoQJV1E 

[3] Matthew Louis Gaetz, is an American lawyer and politician who has served as the U.S. representative for Florida's 1st congressional district since 2017. The district includes portions of Walton County and all of Escambia, Okaloosa, and Santa Rosa counties. 

[4] House, Directing the President, pursuant to section 5(c) of the War Powers Resolution, to remove the United States Armed Forces from Syria, 8-Mar-2023, 5:56 PM: https://clerk.house.gov/evs/2023/roll136.xml 

[5] Amman Net, Aug 08/2017: https://ammannet.net/%D8%AA%D9%82%D8%A7%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%B1/30-%D9%83%D8%A7%D9%86%D9%88%D9%86-%D8%A3%D9%88%D9%84-%D9%85%D9%88%D8%B9%D8%AF-%D8%A5%D8%BA%D9%84%D8%A7%D9%82-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D9%88%D9%83-%D9%81%D9%8A-%D8%B9%D9%85%D8%A7%D9%86 

[6] The U.S. garrison at al-Tanf has, since 2016, served as a launching point for counter-ISIS operations and training for Syrian opposition factions fighting the jihadist group. 

[7] Rukban, sometimes transliterated as Rakban, in Arabic or is an arid remote area on the Syrian border near the extreme northeast of Jordan, close to the joint borders with Syria and Iraq. The area became a refugee camp for Syrians in 2014. It lies along the demilitarized berm between Jordan and Syria. 

[8] @ColonelMohamedF 

[9] "Unable or unwilling" doctrine or the "anticipatory self-defense" doctrine. 

[10] Article 51 Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defence shall be immediately reported to the Security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the present Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security. 

[11] Article 50 If preventive or enforcement measures against any state are taken by the Security Council, any other state, whether a Member of the United Nations or not, which finds itself confronted with special economic problems arising from the carrying out of those measures shall have the right to consult the Security Council about a solution of those problems. 

[12] The National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, commonly named the Syrian National Coalition, or the Syrian Opposition Coalition is a coalition of opposition groups in the Syrian civil war that was founded in Doha, Qatar, in November 2012. 

[13] وكالة الأناضول، 12.12.2012 https://www.aa.com.tr/ar/archive/114-%D8%AF%D9%88%D9%84%D8%A9-%D8%AA%D8%B9%D8%AA%D8%B1%D9%81-%D8%A8%D9%80%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A7%D8%A6%D8%AA%D9%84%D8%A7%D9%81-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%88%D8%B7%D9%86%D9%8A-%D9%85%D9%85%D8%AB%D9%84%D8%A7%D9%8B-%D9%84%D9%84%D8%B4%D8%B9%D8%A8-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B3%D9%88%D8%B1%D9%8A/299198 [14] The 2019 Turkish offensive into north-eastern Syria, code-named Operation Peace Spring by Turkey, was a cross-border military operation conducted by the Turkish Armed Forces and the Syrian National Army against the Syrian Democratic Forces and later Syrian Arab Army in northern Syria.

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