On February 26, the United States carried out airstrikes targeting what it called sites and facilities controlled by Iran-backed militias on the Iraqi-Syrian border. It was a US response to a spate of rocket attacks, which targeted US bases and interests in Iraq. This time, the airstrikes seem to be somewhat different, since they were launched by the United States, not Israel. They are the first to be carried out by the Pentagon under Biden’s administration. These airstrikes give pause for thought regarding the nature of the US strikes, as well as the motives, reasons and timing. The airstrikes also raise questions about the messages which the US administration intended to send to the Iranian government or to other countries concerned with the Syrian crisis. In addition, in the aftermath of the airstrikes, it is important to analyze the most important reactions and positions of actors involved in Syria as well as the dimensions and consequences of the US airstrikes.
The US airstrikes mainly targeted a border crossing dedicated to factions and militias aligned with Iran leading to Imam Ali base. They also struck six weapons facilities inside the base used by the same Iranian-backed factions, including Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH) and Kata’ib Sayyed al-Shuhada (KSS) in eastern Syria. In these airstrikes, Washington dropped seven 250kg/500lb precision-guided bombs, hitting seven targets, including observation outposts and trucks. It is believed that these targets were used by the Iran-backed militias to stockpile and smuggle arms and ammunitions.
Both factions targeted by the US airstrikes are considered to be among the most powerful militias established by the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) and backed by Iran in the Middle East. The first faction targeted was KH: a radical terrorist outfit, established in 2006 and backed by Iran, which seeks to implement Iran’s agenda in the region. The US State Department placed KH on the Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) blacklist in July 2009. The second faction targeted was KSS, established in 2013 under the pretext of protecting Shiite shrines and expanding the scope of Iran’s operations within Syrian territories.
The US airstrikes targeted al-Bukamal, a Syrian city near the Iraqi border and is viewed as the most significant spot where Iranian-backed Iraqi militias are stationed in Syria. Al-Bukamal witnesses ceaseless Iranian activities and growing Iranian clout, with Tehran intending to create an overland corridor connecting Lebanon with both Iraq and Syria.
For Iran, the Qaim-Bukamal border crossing, from a military perspective, plays an important role in aiding the movements of military and paramilitary forces between Syria and Iraq — to a larger extent.
Hence, Iran and its proxies controlling this crossing point makes it easy to redeploy and reposition in other regions. This is in addition to using Al-Bukamal to store Iranian missiles, drones and industrial military equipment — needed for securing Tehran’s strategic objectives.
The airstrikes came in response to Tehran deliberately escalating tensions with the United States through its proxies in Iraq. The Iran-backed militias had targeted US interests by launching three attacks in a single week. They attacked facilities used by the United States and the forces of the Global Coalition. These recent attacks followed months of relative calm amid a truce accepted by the Iran-backed factions in the face of US threats to close down its embassy.
It seems that Iran wanted via its provocations to force the Biden administration to rejoin the nuclear deal — reached in the summer of 2015 under Obama’s administration without any preconditions.
On the other hand, the United States wanted to take preemptive action before Iran and its proxies launched new attacks targeting Washington; hence the United States struck arms depots along the Syria-Iraq border. Thus, the airstrikes were a clear message to Iran that President Joe Biden is ready to take decisive steps to protect US interests as well as those of its regional allies. This is backed by the remarks made by the US Department of Defense spokesperson. He said that the airstrikes send an unambiguous message to Iran that the US president is willing to protect US citizens as well as international coalition forces to calm the situation in eastern Syria and Iraq.
As a direct motive behind the US airstrikes was to send messages to Tehran, it can be said that these airstrikes were more of a political rather than a military step. Through these airstrikes, the new US administration, which is still in the process of disclosing its new approach towards the region, wanted to send different messages covering multiple aspects. The airstrikes came at a delicate diplomatic juncture between Washington and Tehran as the Biden administration is considering to resume talks with Iran regarding its nuclear program. In the meantime, Iran showed heedlessness to the US administration’s initiatives such as withdrawing the request to reinstate UN sanctions and lifting the travel restrictions on a number of Iranian diplomats. Iran also threatened to increase its uranium enrichment to higher levels. Moreover, it resorted to mounting provocative operations in the region.
Hence, the US airstrikes could be viewed as a response to Iranian escalation and Tehran targeting its interests as well as a response to Iran ratcheting up its nuclear activities. The Biden administration intends to pressure Iran to return to the negotiating table.
Further, Washington wanted to change the Iranian thought-process that it can boost its negotiating position by mounting provocative attacks against the United States in the region though targeting its interests and those of its regional allies. Washington also sent a message to Tehran and its regional allies that rejoining the nuclear deal does not mean ignoring Iran’s regional behavior nor that of its proxies.
In the meantime, the United States identifying Syria instead of Iraq to carry out its airstrikes was due to several considerations such as avoiding a diplomatic standoff with Iraq and not creating problems with the Iraqi government which is facing challenges at home ranging from upcoming snap elections and interwoven economic, social and security challenges. These challenges no doubt would have worsened if the United States chose Iraqi soil to carry out its airstrikes.
It is noticeable that the US airstrikes did not target the heartland of Syria, but targeted territories in close proximity with Iraq’s borders. Iraq is on a strategic road linking Tehran to a number of countries via the Qaim-Bukamal border crossing. These airstrikes rang an alarm bell for Iran, as its regional clout is within the range of US firepower as long as it continues to threaten US interests and those of its regional allies.
The United States striking facilities and buildings of Iran-backed militias indicates Washington’s attempts not to escalate tensions which would have happened if it launched a direct strike against Iran. This would have been counterproductive as the Biden administration is seeking to convince Iran to comply with the provisions stipulated under the 2015 nuclear deal.
The US airstrikes conveyed a critical message to Iran that the new administration is willing to use a number of options and tools including limited and well-considered airstrikes as was the case with the former Trump administration. This is to prevent further Iranian escalation and to draw redlines so that Iran and its proxies in Iraq and Syria are clear on what they cannot do.
The US airstrikes were met at home with varying reactions, ranging from approval to political criticism from both the Republican and Democratic parties. Some members of both parties considered that the airstrikes targeting Iranian-backed militias in Syria, which were threatening US forces in Iraq and other places, were an important step to deter Iran and its ambitions in the future.
Some members of Congress, especially the Democrats, criticized the military operation. They were critical as the Biden administration had not consulted nor had sought congressional approval prior to launching the airstrikes.
The position of Syria and its allies such as Iran and Russia was similar, they all condemned the US operation. For their part, Moscow and Tehran believed the airstrikes were illegal as they violated international law and the sovereignty of Syria. In addition, they believed that these airstrikes would lead to nothing but fomenting further tensions in the region.
The Russian criticism was due to its policy which does not permit Syria to turn into an arena to settle scores. Hence, Russian officials condemned the airstrikes and called on the Biden administration to explain its position in relation to Syria and to resume its political and military communication with Russia and the Assad regime, given the fact that the latest US airstrikes are the first of its kind at the military level.
However, there is an implicit message in the Russian condemnation to Iran regarding US-Russian coordination in Syria, that the Biden administration intends to adopt a policy independent from that of the former administration towards Syria, especially against Iranian clout. Such remarks will raise Iranian concerns in the future, especially considering the Russian-Israeli coordination on the strikes that target Iranian positions, especially on Syria’s soil.
Berlin and London offered their support to US military intervention in Syria, describing the airstrikes as an act of self-defense in response to the attacks targeting international coalition forces in Iraq and a response to the threat posed by Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria to the interests of the United States and its allies in the region.
The dimensions and consequences of the US airstrikes against Iranian-backed militias are still unclear and perhaps will not be clarified any time soon. These airstrikes are the first to be carried out by the new US administration, and perhaps they will lead to additional strikes or perhaps they intended to merely deter Iran as it has threatened US interests in Iraq, and to reassure regional parties that Iran’s regional behavior will be discussed in any new talks regarding the nuclear deal. US President Joe Biden has warned Tehran that there will be further strikes like the ones targeting the positions of Iranian-backed militias in Syria. However, the US military approximation aims to avoid escalation and not to carry out attacks on Iranian soil as long as there are no other attacks carried out by Iranian forces targeting US interests and those of its allies.
It is unlikely whether the US airstrikes will change Iran’s calculations regarding the nuclear deal. The Iranian government is aware that directly responding to the US airstrikes will lead to escalation and risk the United States rejoining the nuclear deal and impede negotiations with the other nuclear deal signatories.
Therefore, it is possible that Iran will resort to its traditional policy to respond at an appropriate time and place. It will also return to threatening regional security, especially since the US airstrikes can be viewed as a limited operation, and not a serious ultimatum by the United States considering the compromises made by the Biden administration to appease Iran so that it complies with the nuclear deal.
The US targeting of Iranian-backed militias on the Iraqi-Syrian border, without directly targeting Iran’s forces deployed in Iraq and Syria such as the IRGC, provides an opportunity for Iran to entrench its clout and redeploy away from the border regions. On the other hand, Iranian militias, following Israeli escalations targeting their headquarters and positions in different Syrian regions, have redeployed and repositioned their fighters at different sites throughout Syria. As soon as the Iranian-backed militias deal with the shock of the airstrikes, Iran’s forces and its proxies will start to reshuffle their cards and improve their positions to ensure a permanent presence distant from international threats.
Through its airstrikes against the Iran-backed militias, the Biden administration intended to make a change in the nuclear deal’s quasi-stalemate between international powers and forge an agreed upon formula that allows Washington and Tehran to re-enter the nuclear deal. Yet these US strikes are largely symbolic; they have not been instrumental in restricting Iran’s provocative behavior nor forcing it to accept the terms of a new nuclear agreement which curbs its expansionist ambition and its pursuit to threaten regional security.
Considering the record of US-Iran relations, US attempts towards appeasement and avoiding escalation with Iran through adopting loose measures against Iran’s provocations in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon have emboldened Tehran to continue pursuing its regional policies with greater vigor, i.e., they have not changed Iran’s behavior.