The United States military conducted a series of airstrikes in eastern Syria and western Iraq early Friday morning, targeting facilities used by Iran-backed militia groups believed responsible for recent attacks against US forces. The strikes come amid heightened tensions between the US and Iran and have prompted strong condemnation from Iraq, Iran, and militia groups, who warn of potential escalation.
Timeline of Events Leading Up to Airstrikes
Tensions between the US and Iran-backed groups in Iraq have been simmering for months. A timeline of key events:
|Iran-backed militias conduct dozens of drone attacks targeting US troops in Syria and Iraq. US vows a response “at some point.”
|January 7, 2024
|3 US soldiers are killed in drone attack by Iran-backed militia at US base in Jordan. US vows to retaliate.
|National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan warns Iran the US “will respond at a time and place of our choosing.”
|February 3, 12:15 AM local time
|US launches Operation Righteous Dawn, bombing facilities used by Iran-backed militias across eastern Syria and western Iraq.
Details of US Strikes
The US strikes targeted over 85 facilities used by pro-Iranian militia groups in the border region between Iraq and Syria. Facilities struck included weapons depots, logistics hubs, and other buildings used by the militias.
The strikes were carried out by both piloted warplanes and unmanned drones. Piloted US Air Force planes conducted strikes in Eastern Syria, while unmanned drones struck targets around al-Qaim in Iraq’s Anbar province. Multiple unnamed US officials confirmed details of the bombing campaign.
According to the US military, the strikes were “defensive” in nature and aimed at degrading militia capabilities to conduct future attacks. Secondary explosions after some strikes suggest that ammunition stores and fuel reserves may have been hit.
Iraq and Militia Groups Condemn Strikes
Iraq and Iran-backed militia groups within Iraq reacted angrily to the US strikes, calling them a violation of Iraqi sovereignty.
The Iraqi government spokesperson said “The Iraqi government condemns the US attack that targeted locations in al-Qaim….It was a blatant violation of Iraqi sovereignty & national security.”
Qais al-Khazali, leader of the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq militia targeted in the strikes said the US “insists on dragging the region into wars without end, Iraq cannot remain silent over this violation and dangerous escalation.”
Another Iran-backed militia group Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba said “The American occupation forces are taking revenge on the innocent people of the region for their failure in the face of the mujahideen.”
Iraq stated they may take legal action, and militias have vowed retaliation against US forces within Iraq.
Syria Warns of “Dangerous Escalation”
Syria warned the US strikes represent a “dangerous escalation” and accused the US of trying to support terrorist groups. A Syrian military spokesperson said the strikes killed 5 Syrian soldiers and caused material damage.
The US strikes come after years of tension with Iran-backed militias in Syria. Experts warn the attack could set off a dangerous escalation spiral in the country.
International Calls for Restraint
The retaliatory US airstrikes have prompted international calls for de-escalation from parties involved:
The EU’s Foreign Minister said “The Middle East is a boiler that can explode at any moment….We must avoid escalation and return to diplomacy.”
Turkey urged the US to “act with caution” and encouraged Iraq and the US to solve problems through dialogue.
Meanwhile, the UK backed the US as a “steadfast ally” and supported its right to defend troops.
Concerns Over Wider Escalation
While the White House has said it acted to deter militia attacks, experts and officials in the region worry the US strikes could trigger a wider escalation spiral:
Iran’s President said the US strikes violate sovereignty and pour “oil on the fire” making tensions worse.
Iraq’s military spokesperson warned the strikes could have “serious implications” on regional security.
Hamas said “these strikes will have disastrous consequences locally, regionally and internationally.”
With Iran vowing to support militia retaliation, the US strikes risk pulling more parties into a dangerous tit-for-tat escalation cycle. Though it claims to be acting defensively, the Biden Administration faces criticism it has only added fuel to the fire.
What Comes Next?
In the immediate term, the US, Iran, and militia groups are likely to continue trading accusations and threats. Iran supports militia retaliation, but wants to avoid a wider war.
If militias target US troops, limited US responses and calls for de-escalation are likely. However, the White House also says it reserves the right to hit back harder if attacked. This risks continuing strikes and counter-strikes.
Alternatively, back-channel diplomacy could lead all sides to tamp down bellicose rhetoric. This may happen if strikes trigger too much political blowback domestically or internationally.
In the long run the risk of miscalculation leading to rapid escalation remains high. Unless the fundamental tensions between the US and Iran in Iraq and Syria are addressed, spikes of violence likely will continue regardless of near term de-escalation.
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