The United States military conducted a series of airstrikes targeting facilities used by Iran-backed militia groups in eastern Syria and western Iraq on Thursday in retaliation for a drone attack in Jordan last month that killed 4 American service members. The strikes mark a significant escalation of tensions between the US and Iran-aligned groups in the region.
Details of the US Strikes
According to Pentagon statements, the US strikes targeted at least 3 facilities used by the militia groups, two in Syria and one in Iraq:
- An ammunition storage facility operated by Kataib Hezbollah in eastern Syria’s Deir ez-Zor province
- Two facilities located at the al-Qa’im border crossing between Iraq and Syria that are used as transit points for smuggling advanced conventional weapons used to attack US and coalition forces
The facilities were chosen based on intelligence showing clear links between them and the militia groups that carried out the January drone attack at the At-Tanf garrison in southern Jordan that killed 4 American personnel.
The strikes involved fighter jets and long-range bombers, indicating a desire from military planners to send a strong message to Iran and its regional proxies. Officials have stated these initial strikes are part of a broader campaign to degrade the militia groups’ capacity to conduct further attacks.
Background on the Jordan Attack
On January 30th, a drone laden with explosives attacked a US & British military garrison near At-Tanf in southern Jordan, killing 4 American service members and injuring several more. The sprawling desert base has long been a flashpoint, as Iran-backed militias oppose the presence of hundreds of US troops in eastern Syria training local forces to fight ISIS.
The attack prompted vows of retaliation from US officials. However, determining responsibility for the attack took time, as some details remain unclear. Iran initially denied involvement, and questions emerged about how such a small, commercially available drone was able to evade defenses and cause substantial damage.
Militia Groups Targeted
The US holds several Iran-backed Iraqi militia groups responsible for the Jordan drone attack, including Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada. Both groups emerged after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and maintain strong ties to Iran’s elite Quds Force. They oppose the presence of US troops in Iraq and Syria and have conducted rocket attacks against Iraqi bases hosting American forces.
These Iran-proxy groups are part of a broader network known as the “Axis of Resistance,” which includes Lebanese Hezbollah and several other Shiite armed factions with the shared goal of countering US and Western influence in the region. The network operates under the guidance and support of Iran’s Quds Force.
Response from Targeted Groups
Leaders of the Iraq-based militia groups have firmly denied involvement in the Jordan attack while criticizing the US strikes. One condemned the US for taking “immoral positions” through the airstrikes. Others argued Iraq’s government should do more to exert control over its own territories.
Some signals suggest the militias may be looking for ways to de-escalate tensions to avoid a destructive tit-for-tat conflict. But the groups still fundamentally oppose any US military presence in Iraq or Syria and will likely continue low-level attacks given the opportunity.
Reaction from Iran
Iran also swiftly denied any role in the January drone strike while criticizing the American retaliation. A foreign ministry spokesperson called the US strikes “illegal aggression” that violate Iraq’s national sovereignty. They further warned the US against disrupting the current efforts to revive the 2015 nuclear deal.
Behind the scenes, Iranian leaders are likely alarmed at the escalating regional tensions and the damage wrought to their allies’ facilities. However, they still wield substantial influence among the militia groups and could potentially rein in certain provocative actions if an agreement is struck with the US. For now, Iran seems focused on the nuclear talks but that could shift if attacks intensify.
Broader Regional Response
The American airstrikes have prompted varied reactions from other regional players:
- Iraq’s government condemned the violation of its territory while calling on all external parties to avoid escalations. But Iraq wields minimal real influence over the Iran-backed militias operating freely within its borders.
- Saudi Arabia expressed support for the US strikes, signalling its ongoing tensions with Iran and alignment with American interests.
- Syria’s regime, heavily backed by Russia, decried the attack on its soil as a “bad sign” undermining regional stability. Syria may take its own retaliatory actions.
- Both China and Russia criticized the strikes at a UN Security Council meeting, accusing the US of violating international law.
This mixed regional response shows the complex dynamics at play and the risk of inflaming existing fault lines. Most local powers likely want to avoid getting dragged into a dangerous US-Iran confrontation.
What Comes Next?
In the immediate term, US commanders are preparing for potential retaliatory attacks from the militia groups on American bases and troops across the region. Extra security precautions are being taken at facilities in Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria and beyond.
At the same time, the US is still developing additional target lists and seems poised to launch further strikes if intelligence points to the militia groups planning more attacks. The Pentagon stressed these initial strikes are part of a “deliberate campaign” to degrade the groups’ capabilities.
Longer term, the tensions now thrust the fragile effort to revive the nuclear deal into greater uncertainty. After over a year of slow progress, recent weeks saw encouraging signs that an agreement was within reach. But this sudden geopolitical crisis risks upending the talks.
The militia groups may also shift their focus toward targeting US partners and allies seen as vulnerable, like Jordan and Saudi Arabia, rather than American personnel.
Most experts argue a full-scale war remains unlikely, as neither the US or Iran truly want an open conflict. But the risks of miscalculation remain high, so de-escalatory measures will be needed on both sides to prevent spiralling uncontrolled escalations.
Projected Path Ahead
- Militia groups likely to retaliate causing a potential tit-for-tat escalation cycle
- Iran tries to rein in allies to some degree to prevent uncontrolled regional conflagration
- US poised to conduct additional strikes if hard intelligence warrants
- Nuclear deal talks endangered due to surge in tensions
- Militias potentially shift attacks toward US partners in the region
- Needs for confidence-building measures rise to avoid open US-Iran war that neither side wants
The path ahead promises to remain turbulent as the US tries to deter Iran and its network of proxies without triggering an unintentional slide toward conflict. Careful signalling and diplomacy will be vital in the coming weeks to control the spiralling tensions.
Table Summary of Key Developments
|Jordan Base Attack
|January 30, 2024
|Explosive-laden drone strikes US base near At-Tanf, Jordan, killing 4 American service members
|February 2, 2024
|US targets at least 3 militia facilities in eastern Syria and western Iraq
|Militia Groups Deny Involvement
|February 3, 2024
|Iran-backed militias deny role in January drone strike, criticize US retaliation
|Iran Condemns US Strikes
|February 4, 2024
|Iran decries violation of national sovereignty, warns against derailing nuclear talks
|Russia & China Criticize US at UN
|February 6, 2024
|Top UN powers accuse US of violating international law with unilateral military action
The US airstrikes targeting Iraqi militia groups mark a serious regional escalation following last month’s deadly attack on American forces in Jordan. While Iran and its proxies deny involvement in that initial strike, they remain fundamentally opposed to any US military footprint in Iraq or Syria.
The attacks now place substantial strain on the delicate effort to restore the nuclear deal while raising risks that a cycle of retaliatory actions from the militia groups prompts an uncontrolled slide toward open conflict between the US and Iran. Intensive diplomacy and confidence-building measures will be essential in the coming weeks to contain the crisis.
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