Airstrikes targeting US forces in Iraq and Syria in recent weeks, in the wake of the Hamas attack on Israel in early October, rocked a period of relative calm in the Middle East. Simultaneously, missiles and drones launched from Yemen by the Iranian-backed Houthis on October 19 — shot down by US forces— point to a concerted Iranian complicity to unite allies in the Gaza conflict.
Tasnim News Agency, affiliated with the IRGC, announced the attacks on the US bases, claiming that six missiles were fired toward areas around the al-Omar oil field where US troops are stationed in Syria. It confirmed that Iraqi resistance groups, in reference to Iranian proxies in the region, had also launched a drone attack on the Ain al-Asad airbase in western Iraq.
US troops intercepted most strikes. But the strikes did cause havoc, and Washington counter-reacted by launching attacks against Iranian strongholds in Syria. Still, according to the Iranian state-controlled Fars News Agency, some 13 attacks were carried out against US targets in Syria and Iraq, which Washington confirmed, the largest of which took place in eastern Syria on October 18, leading to the injury of 20 US military personnel.
By October 25, the Iran-backed Islamic Resistance in Iraq took credit for 11 of the 13 attacks on US troops, including on the al-Tanf base located on the border triangle of Syria, Iraq and Jordan, and one targeting US forces in Kharab al-Jeir in Syria. The surprise strikes pointed to the strong operational capabilities of Iranian armed networks.
The Islamic Resistance in Iraq is believed to be one of several networks that has appeared in the wake of the latest war in the region between Hamas and Israel, revealing Iranian attempts to build up multiple unified armed fronts to fight US forces in the Middle East, while leaving enough fingerprints for the United States to detect in order to signal Iranian displeasure over US support for Israel’s relentless assault on Gaza.
Iran says it is against the shoring up of US air defense systems in the region and silently, it fears that the Israeli military escalation aims to contain it and its regional allies. The Biden administration is against the widening escalation as it wants to contain the Israel- Hamas war. In recent weeks, President Joe Biden warned Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei not to move against US forces in the region.
But if Iranian-led attacks were to directly kill US citizens or military personnel in the region, then the conflict between Washington and Tehran could get out of hand. Washington has warned that short-term attacks on its bases in the Middle East could increase, while insisting that it would protect its forces in the region. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed that the United States does not seek conflict with Iran but would respond to attacks on US military personnel by Iran or its proxies. He also called on all countries to deter any state or non-state actor, in reference to Iran and its allies Hamas and Hezbollah, aiming to create another front in the war raging in Gaza.
Even so, in Lebanon, Hezbollah and Israel engaged in recent clashes that led to increased casualties for the Iran-aligned group. The group’s leader Hasan Nasrallah and Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian met on October 13 to discuss the situation on the ground. Hezbollah did not issue a declaration outlining its positions clearly, heightening the ambiguity surrounding the group’s next moves. According to news accounts, Hezbollah is prepared to address any challenges resulting from the war.
A recent meeting between Hamas, Hezbollah and the Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad held in Lebanon, pointed to possible coordination among Iran’s regional allies to ensure victory for Gaza. Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi openly criticized the United States for backing Israel and asked others not to interfere in the war.
Iran’s news agencies continue to report on rockets landing from Lebanon into occupied territories, suggesting that Tehran is losing patience. The Houthis are also warning that if the United States was to get directly involved in Gaza, they would respond with missiles and drones, some of which have long-range capabilities. However, in response to Israel’s continued assault on Gaza, the Houthis announced their involvement in the conflict, despite this announcement, it is uncertain as to what exactly the militia will do and how effective it will be in harming Israel given the geographical distance and Israel’s advanced air defense systems. It could be said that other motives are behind the Houthi militia’s announcement such as to deflect domestic criticism against its rule and poor management and to ride on the wave of anti-Israel opinion in Yemen.
Without a will to end this war, the cost of the Israel- Hamas conflict could rise and lead to further military escalation between Washington and Tehran. If Israel’s ground advancement into Gaza in the past week bogs it down in the war, Iran and its allies will be in a slightly better position to reconsolidate military fronts in the Middle East and attack US interests. This could then increase Iran’s leverage with regard to other files such as the talks to revive the nuclear deal.