U.S. forces launched a series of deadly counterstrikes Thursday against Iran-backed militias inside Syria, the latest move in an escalating battle between the two sides that is casting a dark shadow over the Biden administration’s push for a new nuclear deal with Tehran.
Pentagon officials said the strikes — just hours after militants fired rockets at two U.S. installations in Syria, wounding three American service members — included AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, AC-130 gunships and M777 artillery. The major show of force came with a direct warning from top Pentagon commanders, who made clear that the U.S. is prepared for battle against Iran’s proxy organizations, wherever they may be.
“We will respond appropriately and proportionally to attacks on our service members,” Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla, commander of U.S. Central Command, said in a statement. “No group will strike at our troops with impunity. We will take all necessary measures to defend our people.”
The Defense Department didn’t identify the militia groups in question, but analysts said they are almost certainly Kata’ib Hezbollah and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, two Iraqi Shiite militias with direct ties to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The State Department lists the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization, partly because of its support for and affiliations with militias that have spent years targeting U.S. and allies’ forces in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria with rockets, drones and other weapons.
The links between the organizations are clear. Kata’ib Hezbollah founder and top commander Abu-Mahdi al-Muhandis was traveling with Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani when their vehicle was hit in a U.S. airstrike in January 2020 at the Baghdad international airport. Both men were killed, sparking retaliation at U.S. positions in Iraq.
What’s less clear is why the IRGC and its proxies have chosen this moment to escalate a conflict with U.S. troops.
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Despite other significant violence in recent years, including the days after the Soleimani strike, the rapid escalation of tensions coincides with the Biden administration’s last-ditch effort to strike a deal with Iran to revive the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The agreement limited Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.
President Trump pulled the U.S. out of that deal in 2018. He said it did not address Iran’s other military programs and its support of anti-U.S. forces across the Middle East.
The administration has forged ahead with negotiations despite the spate of attacks on U.S. troops and subsequent counterattacks. The IRGC and its affiliates could be trying to send a message to rival factions inside the Iranian government, said Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who studies Kata’ib Hezbollah and other militias in the region.
“There could be a significant spoiler component inside Iran that is demonstrating that, under protest, we go back into this deal. But we’re not going to stop anything that we’ve been doing,” Mr. Knights said.
He said there is little doubt that the IRGC at least indirectly sanctioned the most recent attacks on U.S. troops.
The Syrian-based militia groups “don’t act, particularly against U.S. targets, without approval from Iran, from the IRGC specifically,” he said. “And we may have a few more rounds of it to go.”
It’s difficult to determine whether the push to revive the JCPOA is directly connected to the uptick in violence, but the timing of events on both fronts is noteworthy. On Aug. 15, Syrian Shiite militias, fighting on a chaotic battlefield in support of the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, launched a drone attack on America’s al-Tanf military installation in Syria.
A day later, Iran formally responded to a European Union plan to reinstate the JCPOA.
On Tuesday, President Biden ordered airstrikes in Deir el-Zour, Syria. Those strikes targeted facilities and equipment depots used by the militias that targeted Americans at al-Tanf. A day later, the U.S. responded to the EU proposal by signaling openness to more negotiations and rejecting calls from Republicans in Congress and key allies such as Israel to abandon talks with Tehran.
On Wednesday night, Iran-backed militants fired rockets at Mission Support Site Conoco and Mission Support Site Green Village, two U.S. military installations in northeast Syria. U.S. troops responded with Thursday’s helicopter and gunship strikes, which specialists say marked a slight change in approach for American forces in the region.
“The flavor of the U.S. counterstrikes in the last 24 hours have been literal counterforce. You see somebody setting up launch rails, and you kill them,” Mr. Knights said. “That’s a very direct defensive action which most people understand. That’s the enemy being caught absolutely red-handed. And that’s got a strong deterrent effect on people who are trying to hit you.”
U.S. officials insist they can pursue a nuclear deal with Tehran even while battling Iranian-supplied militants in Syria and elsewhere.
“Whether or not there is a deal, the president’s commitment to protect U.S. personnel and confront Iran’s activities that jeopardize our people or our partners in the region is unwavering,” State Department deputy spokesman Vedant Patel said in a briefing Thursday. “The nuclear deal has nothing to do with our readiness and ability to defend our people and our interests.
“We’ve also been clear that we will ensure that Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon,” Mr. Patel said. “We believe diplomacy is the best path to achieving that goal, and as we long have said, we believe pursuing JCPOA talks is in U.S. national security interests, and we’re going to continue to do so.”
The escalating conflict in Syria also is renewing questions about the wisdom of keeping U.S. troops in the country, which has been wracked by a decade-long civil war. About 900 American service members are stationed in Syria. Their primary mission is to train and assist Kurdish groups battling the Islamic State, or ISIS.
“U.S. forces remain in Syria to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS,” Col. Joe Buccino, CENTCOM spokesman, said Tuesday in a statement announcing U.S. airstrikes.
Syria and Iran say the U.S. has no right under international law to operate inside Syrian territory.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani strongly condemned the U.S. Syrian strikes in a briefing with reporters in Tehran on Wednesday.
“The U.S. military’s new act of aggression against the people of Syria was a terrorist action against the popular groups and fighters opposing the occupation,” he said.
He denied any link between them and the Islamic Republic of Iran, according to a summary of his remarks by the state-controlled Tasnim News Agency.
Some in the U.S. say the recent violence shows that American troops are at risk with little benefit to U.S. national security. Mr. Trump, at one point, announced a withdrawal of all remaining U.S. forces from Syria but rescinded his decision in the face of Pentagon opposition.
“President Biden can best protect our troops and safeguard American interests by quickly withdrawing all U.S. service members from Syria,” said retired Army Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, now a senior fellow at the think tank Defense Priorities, which advocates for a more restrained U.S. military role abroad.
“No Americans were killed in this latest attack, but it would be irresponsible for the president to keep U.S. forces there with no justifying mission, risking American casualties in a future attack,” he said. “No American should ever be asked to sacrifice their life for a mission that is not tied to defending U.S. national security.”