In 2017, the American intervention in the Syrian Civil War was heating up fast. A new President of the United States took office that year, and the new Commander-In-Chief wanted to raise the number of airstrikes against ISIS forces in Syria. As of August of that year, Coalition aircraft had flown an estimated 11,235 airstrike missions in Syria. One particular airstrike mission had the potential to escalate the conflict to a broader war, one that would pit American troops against Iran and Iranian-backed militias in Syria and Iraq. It all almost started with the U.S. Air Force targeting an Iranian port-a-potty moving through American-controlled territory.
On April 7, 2017, President Donald Trump ordered the U.S. Navy to fire 59 tomahawk missiles at Syria’s Shayrat Air Base, in response to a chemical weapons attack on Syrian rebels. The next night, a U.S. outpost at al-Tanf in Syria was attacked by the Islamic State. Al-Tanf was so close to the fighting against ISIS rebels that it was nearly bombed by Russian airstrikes in the following weeks.
To mitigate the risk to American personnel, the U.S. and Russia negotiated a 34-mile exclusion zone around the base, and Russia informed its Syrian and Iranian allies in the country. On May 18, 2017, Russia informed the U.S. that Iranian-backed forces would be moving through the area. Instead of moving, the force built an outpost within the zone – which the U.S. subsequently bombed.
The next day, the U.S. told Russia the outpost could stay but could not be resupplied and should not move closer to al-Tanf base. Then, a truck carrying a port-a-potty came rumbling into the exclusion zone. The Coalition headquarters ordered an airstrike, but the U.S. Air Force declined to carry out the order. The Air Force said the order was unlawful because the port-a-potty could not pose a threat to American troops.
“We stray from the Constitution when military commanders choose to use U.S. military force against another state’s force in the absence of a credible, imminent threat,” a defense official told Foreign Policy magazine.
The Constitutional crisis nearly sparked by the port-a-potty airstrike stems from the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) that allows American troops to deploy to Syria. The 2001 AUMF allows for U.S. troops to target nonstate military groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, but not military forces flying the flag of a recognized state, such as Iran, Syria, or Russia – unless they attack Americans first.
Coalition leadership wanted to enforce its exclusion zone, but the port-a-potty belonged to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Since the USAF believed it posed no threat to American forces at the al-Tanf base, the airstrike order was not carried out. The United States was not in a direct conflict with Iran and any move to expand the war would be met with resistance in Congress.
The Department of Defense has never commented on the port-a-potty airstrike, neither confirming the order nor denying it, saying the department does not keep records on airstrikes that never happened. American forces maintain a presence at the al-Tanf base, located near the Iraqi border, along the Damascus-Baghdad highway.
Its exclusion zone remains in effect, despite protests from the Syrian government. The exclusion zone protects Syrian refugees and Free Syrian Army rebel forces. Airstrikes from both Russia and the United States occur frequently in the zone.