Why the US airstrike on Iranian forces in Syria matters - analysis

The US says the strike was intended to defend its forces from recent attacks.

 A flag is waved in front of Palais Coburg where closed-door nuclear talks with Iran take place in Vienna, Austria, August 4,2022. (photo credit: REUTERS/LISA LEUTNER)
A flag is waved in front of Palais Coburg where closed-door nuclear talks with Iran take place in Vienna, Austria, August 4,2022.
(photo credit: REUTERS/LISA LEUTNER)

US forces carried out airstrikes in Syria on Tuesday, targeting groups affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The airstrikes took place in the Euphrates River Valley, in the administrative region of Deir ez-Zor.

Washington said the strike was intended to defend US forces from recent attacks. A statement by US Central Command cited an August 15 attack on American forces as an example.

The airstrike is important because the US has rarely retaliated for dozens of attacks carried out by the IRGC and its proxies against its forces over the past several years. These attacks increased in 2019 and have resulted in harm to US personnel in Iraq. Under the Trump administration, the rising tensions led to America killing IRGC Quds Force head Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

When the Biden administration came into office, it was widely expected to dial down the previous administration’s stance. For instance, under Trump, the US sanctioned the IRGC and the Houthis in Yemen. The Biden administration rolled back sanctions on the Houthis but has so far kept them on the IRGC.

Iran had demanded that these sanctions be lifted as part of a return to the Iran deal. In short, Tehran has always demanded impunity and freedom of action for its IRGC as well as proxy and terrorist groups in the region.

Iran wants money from the West as blackmail to keep it from developing nuclear weapons while maintaining the “right” to take over Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen and then use those countries to attack neighboring countries such as Israel.

This isn’t a secret or a matter of opinion: Iran openly says this is what it has in mind. It believes its units in those countries are part of the “resistance” and openly says it wants to use them against the US, Israel and other countries, such as several in the Gulf. Iran has used drones and missiles to attack US forces in Iraq and Syria, targeted the UAE and Saudi Arabia and attacked ships in the Gulf of Oman.

 Smoke rises after airstrikes on a rebel-held part of the southern city of Deraa, Syria, June 15, 2017 (illustrative). (credit: REUTERS/ALAA AL-FAQIR) Smoke rises after airstrikes on a rebel-held part of the southern city of Deraa, Syria, June 15, 2017 (illustrative). (credit: REUTERS/ALAA AL-FAQIR)

This has set up a situation in which Iran believes it has impunity. According to reports, there have been dozens of attacks since last October, many of them going unreported or underreported.

It has gotten to the point where pro-Iranian forces carry out attacks that don’t cause casualties, and there is a shrug because everyone knows that no one will retaliate. It’s like, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one heard it, did it happen?” In this case, “If an Iranian rocket targets a US base and no one is around to report it, did it happen?”

In rare instances, we have heard more about these attacks. For example, Iran used a drone last year to strike at what US media called a “CIA hangar” at Erbil International Airport. It also targeted the Tanf garrison in Syria, near the Jordanian border.

Iran trying to keep an eye on US forces

In general, Iran tries to keep an eye on US forces and exert pressure in the Middle Euphrates River Valley, the area called the MERV by US forces. This is an area that was cleared of ISIS between 2017 and 2020. It connects the Iraqi border town of Qaim with Deir ez-Zor in Syria.

In the old days, the tribes in Syria along the valley used to hang photos of Saddam Hussein in their houses, such was their connection to Iraq, not Syria. Later, after 2003, this area became a conduit for jihadists heading through Syria to fight the US in Iraq.

In 2014, this area became a key area for ISIS during the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent genocide of minorities in the country. In 2018, Iran began to take a greater interest in investing in this area to turn it into a “corridor to the sea” so that it could move weapons via Albukamal to the T-4 base and then to Lebanon, Damascus and the Golan.

Tehran even built a base called Imam Ali to facilitate the housing and movement of weapons, which was targeted numerous times by airstrikes. Iranian and Syrian media blamed Israel for the airstrikes. Israel is waging a “war between the wars” campaign to prevent Iranian entrenchment in Syria.

This is the context under which pro-Iranian units have established themselves in a series of redoubts from Albukamal to Deir ez-Zor, along the river. From there, they can peer into eastern Syria, where the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces is in control.

In some areas, such as the Omar oil field, the US has more substantial units. According to Syrian media reports, rockets targeted the “US occupation base in Omar oil field” on August 15. Washington was keen to retaliate, but the Iran deal talks are underway, and there are other considerations. The base had been targeted in May, according to Turkish media. Other reports said it was targeted in January.

The Biden administration can afford to target Iranian proxies in Syria because these forces are generally made up of locals or people Iran recruits in Iraq or Afghanistan. Syria is also a kind of “free-for-all” zone, where Russia, the US, Iran, Turkey and others seem to operate with impunity.

The US would be more concerned about targeting IRGC members in Iraq or in Iran itself. The question is whether the “precision” airstrikes that the US says it carried out have resulted in any real damage or whether they are symbolic.

Washington has a habit of lobbing missiles at threats but not carrying through with any real policy. This “missile diplomacy” goes back many years. For example, US airstrikes on al-Qaeda in the 1990s proved worthless and did nothing to dent the terrorist group’s desire to carry out the 9/11 attacks. Iran isn’t plotting any kind of 9/11, but its proxies are a major danger, and Tehran believes it has the impunity to attack the US and its allies in the region.

America’s retaliating amidst the Iran deal talks and naming the IRGC shows that Central Command is willing to say who is causing the problems. But the US and the Pentagon are still reluctant to really confront the Islamic Republic.

Overall, the White House has preferred to downplay the attacks and threats. This is despite the fact that Iran has increasingly used drones and even threatened US friends in the Kurdistan Region, as well as threatening Israel by flying drones from Iraq and Iran to target the Jewish state.

The US shot down several of those drones earlier this year, and it remains to be seen if these are just a few incidents or part of a wider US policy.