The United States military has carried out a series of airstrikes targeting facilities used by Iran-backed militia groups in eastern Syria and western Iraq on February 3rd, 2024. The strikes come in retaliation for a drone attack on a US military outpost in southern Syria on January 28th which killed 4 US soldiers and injured 4 others.
Background – Increasing Tensions Between US and Iran-Backed Groups
Tensions between the US and Iran-backed militia groups such as Kataib Hezbollah have been escalating over the past year. These groups are funded and supported by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corp Quds Force. They operate primarily in Iraq and Syria and have regularly targeted US troops and bases in the region.
In January 2023, the US launched airstrikes against Kataib Hezbollah weapons depots along the Iraq-Syria border after the group launched rockets targeting US forces in Iraq. Iran has vowed to retaliate for any attacks on its allies and proxies in the region. This sets up a dangerous cycle of action and retaliation between the US and Iran that threatens greater conflict.
Details of the Recent Drone Attack and US Response
On January 28th, 2024, three explosive-laden drones targeted a US military outpost in southern Syria known as the Green Village, near the Al-Tanf base close to the borders of Syria, Jordan and Iraq.
Four US service members were killed in the attack:
- Staff Sgt. Jonathan Farmer, 37 of Boynton Beach, Florida
- Staff Sgt. Michael Baze, 32, of Leesville, Louisiana
- Staff Sgt. Elijah Gamble, 32 of Charlotte, North Carolina
- Cpl. Benjamin Hartfield, 20, of Beavercreek, Ohio
Another 4 US troops were injured. The Pentagon stated that Iran-backed militia groups were likely responsible for carrying out the attack. Kataib Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies have not claimed responsibility but praised the deadly strike.
On February 3rd, the US responded by launching a series of airstrikes targeting Kataib Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed Shia militia weapons depots and logistics facilities used to support drone operations across eastern Syria and western Iraq.
|Deir Ezzor, Syria
|F-15E fighter jets dropped 12 precision guided bombs destroying 9 weapons storehouses.
|Al Bukamal, Syria
|F-15E jets struck 5 weapons cache facilities.
|Al Qaim, Iraq
|8 US F-16 fighters conducted additional strikes targeting militia logistics networks along the Iraq-Syria border.
The US stated that initial assessments indicated that all intended targets were destroyed and fighter jets faced no threats or resistance from militia air defenses or aircraft.
Reactions to US Airstrikes
The US airstrikes have prompted condemnation as well as threats of retaliation from Iran and its regional allies and proxies:
Iran – Tehran condemned the US attacks as illegal and violating Syrian sovereignty. A foreign ministry spokesperson stated that Iran will not hesitate to defend its national security and interests, warning the US not to “test the wrath of the region.”
Iraq – The Iraqi government, which maintains ties to Iran, denounced the US strikes on its territory calling them a “blatant and unacceptable violation of Iraqi sovereignty and Iraqi national security.” Iraq stated it may reconsider allowing US troops to remain in the country.
Kataib Hezbollah – The Iran-backed Shia militia targeted in the strikes stated that it reserves the right to respond to US “aggression” at the time and place of its choosing. It described the US bases, troops, and interests in the region as “legitimate targets.”
Houthi Rebels in Yemen – Another Iranian-proxy group, the Houthi rebels fighting Saudi Arabia in Yemen, also threatened to escalate attacks in the Red Sea against US partner nations in retaliation.
Russia/China – America’s global rivals have utilized the strikes to criticize the US. At an emergency UN Security Council session, Russia accused the US of violating international law while China said the attacks would “make the situation more complicated.”
What Happens Next?
The latest escalation has left the region on edge and bracing for potential retaliation from Iranian proxies against US bases and troops in Syria, Iraq and the wider Middle East. So far, Kataib Hezbollah has not directly attacked American forces, but it may feel compelled to respond.
Kataib Hezbollah will likely continue low-level rocket and drone attacks targeting US bases and diplomatic facilities in Iraq. Iraqi militias are better equipped to strike US positions in Iraq compared to eastern Syria.
There is concern that if proxy group attacks against US forces continue without a strong response, Iran may decide to launch direct action using its own Revolutionary Guard Corps forces and precision missiles against American targets. This risks open conflict between the US and Iran.
For now, the US is posturing that it is prepared to carry out additional strikes if needed against Iranian proxies. But it also wants to contain the situation without triggering a regional war. Much will depend on Iran’s calculus in reining in its allies’ aggression versus taking more assertive steps.
The Biden Administration will continue grappling with deterring Iran and its network of regional militias and proxies from targeting the US and its interests, while trying to prevent wider conflict. But the indirect shadow war between America and Iran-backed groups appears destined to endure with both sides trading blows through Iraqi and Syrian territory.
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