Pro-Iranian groups used drones and rockets to target US forces and facilities in Iraq three times in the last three days. This coincided with the anniversary of the death of IRGC Quds Force head Qasem Soleimani, killed in a US airstrike in January 2020. However, the uptick in attacks seems to be more than just a symbolic anniversary desultory rocket fire scenario; it could be growing into something larger because the attacks have not extended to Syria and the US responded with counter-fire.
One false move could lead to casualties and that could bring the shadow war between the US and Iran out into the open, possibly leading to clashes in Syria which could affect Israel. Pro-Iran groups have used Syria to strike at Israel and view the US and Israel as enemies.
Over the last several days, it looked like pro-Iran groups were going to use drones to attack US forces in symbolic attacks. The US has installed counter-drone solutions in Baghdad, al-Asad base and likely in Erbil as well, in Iraq. The counter-drone, or what is called counter-UAS, the fire was seen in a video published after a January 4 attack on the al-Asad base, one that houses Iraqi forces and where some US forces have a facility. The same base was attacked by Iranian ballistic missiles in January 2020 after the US killed Soleimani. The two drones that headed for the base on January 4 were hit with a combination of missile and machine-gun fire, a system known as C-RAM.
However, the drone attacks on January 3 in Baghdad, and on the 4th at al-Asad base were just the beginning. The rockets in Baghdad were an older 240mm variety, larger than the 107mm rockets that were used in dozens of attacks in 2019 against US forces in Iraq. In Syria, more rockets, rumored to be 122mm Grad rockets, were also used to target US forces near Deir Ezzor. The US responded in retaliation. Reports of rocket fired the next night in al-Asad followed.
It is important to note that in the past, at least since late 2019, the US responded to attacks in Iraq by sometimes striking pro-Iran groups in Syria. This is partly because the US-led coalition can do as it wants in Syria and the Syrian regime can’t ask the US to leave it is in Syria to fight ISIS. In Iraq, the US situation is more precarious.
Powerful pro-Iran voices in parliament want the US to leave Iraq. The US has said it ended combat operations but has thousands of personnel in Iraq. The voices in parliament who oppose the US are often linked to pro-Iranian militias in Iraq that have direct ties to the IRGC, which means the US doesn’t want to respond to attacks in Iraq and cause casualties. When the US did respond with airstrikes in 2019, it led to an attack on the US embassy in Baghdad and the US responded by killing Soleimani and Iraqi pro-Iran leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. It is that cycle that led us to where we are now.
The latest reports indicate that the US did respond in Syria. CNN noted: “US-led coalition forces fired back after they were attacked Wednesday morning by suspected Iranian-backed militias who fired eight rounds of indirect fire at their base in eastern Syria near the Iraqi border, though there were no coalition casualties, according to a statement from the coalition.”
The coalition "responded swiftly and fired six rounds of artillery towards the point of origin of the attack just outside Mayadin, Syria," according to a US statement. Mayadin is known as a center of Iranian activity. It is in the same route from Albukamal on the border with Iraq to Deir Ezzor.
This is where pro-Iran militias festoon the landscape. At Albukamal there is an Iranian base called Imam Ali. Back in June 2018, an airstrike hit a Kataib Hezbollah headquarters in Albukamal. Kataib Hezbollah was led by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis which is linked to the IRGC and plays a key role in Iraq. It is this network of pro-Iran militias that link Syria to Iraq and link Iran to Hezbollah via places like Mayadin and Albukamal.
Now, the shadow conflict that has emerged, stretching from Baghdad to attacks on the US in Tanf garrison in Syria, is growing and risks exploding into the open. This could affect Israel as well because foreign reports have said in the past that pro-Iran groups targeted Tanf in response to Israeli airstrikes in Syria. It could also affect the Iran deal negotiations in Vienna.