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In the southeastern Syrian desert, near the Jordan and Iraq borders, far from the ruins of the Caliphate or the carnage of the Turkish invasion, lies the terminal phase of a U.S. war. 

A dusty garrison outpost called al-Tanf, or sometimes at-Tanf, is now the last redoubt for the American forces in Syria that have occupied it since 2016. It has little to do with the war against the so-called Islamic State, the ostensible purpose of the U.S. in Syria, and far more to do with a confrontation against an entirely different adversary: Iran. 

The Oct. 6 phone call between presidents Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a prelude to the betrayal of the U.S.’ Syrian Kurdish partners, prompted a highly confusing U.S. withdrawal from the Syrian northeast, one that’s been misunderstood as a full withdrawal from Syria. Instead, according to a knowledgeable U.S. official not cleared to speak with reporters, hundreds of U.S. special operators and general-purpose troops have pulled back to al-Tanf. For however long they remain in Syria – now that the Turks have invaded and the Kurds have turned to the Syrian government and its Russian patrons for protection, the U.S. presence may be untenable—al-Tanf and the 55-kilometer “exclusion zone” surrounding it will be where they operate. 

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