War with Iran was narrowly averted in May 2017 when the Air Force refused to bomb a truck carrying a porta-potty that was headed toward Iranian-backed forces in Syria.
The episode is particularly instructive as the Trump administration signals it might leave behind a small force in both Syria and Iraq to monitor Iranian activities.
Some analysts and U.S. officials believe that the change of mission for those forces could raise the chances of a war between the United States and Iran—and that it may even be illegal under the U.S. Constitution.
President Donald Trump announced in December 2018 that he’s withdrawing all U.S. troops from Syria, but administration sources told Foreign Policy last month that he’s considering keeping a small force at a remote base in southeastern Syria, far from the last remnants of the Islamic State, to counter Iran. And yesterday, Trump said he wants to maintain some troops in Iraq for the same purpose.
“I want to be able to watch Iran,” he told CBS’s Face the Nation. “We’re going to keep watching and we’re going to keep seeing,” he said.
In both countries, the strategy would constitute a core operational change, raising broad questions about the mission. Then-President Barack Obama completed a drawdown of all U.S. forces in Iraq in 2011, bringing an end to the 2003 Iraq War. But the Islamic State’s sweep of broad territories in Iraq and Syria in 2014 prompted the United States to intervene militarily in both countries, alongside a coalition of other militaries, to fight the militant group.
“What is the strategy? What would be the rules of engagement? How would we avoid being sucked into a regional war not of our making?” said Kelly Magsamen, the vice president for national security and international policy at the Center for American Progress. “If I’m a service member in Syria, I would want to know what the heck I was doing there and how my mission fit into a strategy.”
The port-a-potty incident, described at Foreign Policy for the first time, took place at a small U.S. outpost called al-Tanf, which sits along a potential Iranian supply route through Iraq to Syria in the southeast part of the country, in May 2017—at a time of heightened tensions across the region. Just weeks earlier, the United States had launched cruise missiles at the Syrian regime’s Shayrat air base in response to a chemical weapons attack on the town of Khan Shaykhun. The night after the missile strike, on the evening of April 8, al-Tanf itself came under attack from Islamic State fighters. The ensuing battle left three U.S.-backed Syrian fighters dead.
The situation remained tense throughout the next few weeks. On the night of May 9, Russia conducted airstrikes just 14 miles from al-Tanf—close enough that the soldiers could hear the aircraft, according to a U.S. defense official who requested anonymity in discussing internal deliberations. Alarmed, U.S. officials quickly negotiated an agreement with Moscow for advance notice whenever Russian planes strike within a 55-kilometer (34-mile) radius around the garrison to ensure they did not endanger coalition forces.
“The agreement was about airstrikes. But it quickly became our narrative that this is our territory,” the official said about the 55-kilometer exclusion zone.
Days later, a group of pro-regime forces believed to be affiliated with Iran or Lebanese Hezbollah told U.S. commanders, through Russian intermediaries, that they intended to pass through al-Tanf to meet up with a group of Iranian-backed forces in Iraq, who were moving toward the border. The headquarters for the Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve—the name of the joint task force established by the U.S.-led international coalition against the Islamic State to coordinate military efforts against the group—declined to answer the message, a silence Russia apparently took as consent, the official said.