BEIRUT (AP) – UNITED STATES airstrike targeting facilities used by Iranian-backed militias in Syria appears to be a message to Tehran from a new US administration understanding its approach to the Middle East.
The strike was apparently a response to escalating rocket attacks by such militias that have targeted US interests in Iraq, where the armed groups are based. It comes even as Washington and Tehran contemplate a return to the 2015 deal intended to curb Iran’s nuclear program.
The United States appears to have chosen the target, just across the border in Syria rather than Iraq, with caution. It’s a way for President Joe Biden to signal that he will be tough on Iran while avoiding a response that could counterbalance the delicate balance in Iraq itself or spark a broader confrontation.
And it’s yet another example of how Syria, mired in civil war over the past decade, has often served as a proxy battleground for world powers.
WHAT ARE THE FORCES TARGETED BY THE UNITED STATES?
The US airstrike – which took place in Syria on Friday – targeted one of the most powerful Iranian-backed militias in the Middle East, known as the Kataeb Hezbollah, or Hezbollah Brigades. The group is part of the Popular Mobilization Forces, which includes a set of Iraqi militias.
The group was founded after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq toppled dictator Saddam Hussein. It is different from the Lebanese Hezbollah, but the two groups are strong allies. In recent years, Kataeb Hezbollah has played a major role in the fight against the Islamic State group and aided President Bashar Assad’s forces in the conflict in Syria.
The group was founded by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a veteran Iraqi activist who was closely allied with Iran and killed in a US drone attack in Baghdad in January 2020 along with General Qassem Soleimani, the force commander. Iranian elite Quds.
The United States has already struck the group: in December 2019, an American strike along the Syrian-Iraqi border killed 25 of its fighters and injured dozens. Washington called it retaliation for the death of an American contractor in a rocket attack it blamed on Kataeb Hezbollah.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR RELATIONS WITH IRAN?
The attack is likely intended to send a message to Tehran that the United States will not tolerate attacks on American interests in the region, while leaving the door open for talks.
It comes like the Biden administration faces an uncertain road in its attempts to resurrect the 2015 Iran nuclear deal – which gave Tehran billions of dollars in sanctions relief in return for restrictions on its nuclear program and from which the Trump administration has withdrawn.
In the meantime, relations with Iran have grown even more strained as the country’s proxies assert themselves more and more, with Iranian-backed militias increasingly targeting US interests and allies. This has rekindled concerns that the deadlock relationship between the United States and Iran could end up falling apart in Iraq.
There are already signs that Iraq is being used to wage a proxy war. Drones loaded with explosives that targeted Saudi Arabia’s royal palace in the kingdom’s capital last month were launched from inside Iraqa senior Iranian-backed militia official in Baghdad and a US official said this week.
WILL THIS TRIGGER A WIDER CLIMB?
It’s unlikely at this point.
Biden’s decision to attack in Syria does not appear to signal an intention to expand US military involvement in the region, but rather to demonstrate a willingness to defend US troops in Iraq while avoiding embarrassing the Iraqi government, American ally, by striking on its territory.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the operation in Boukamal, Syria, sends a clear message: “President Biden will act to protect US and coalition personnel. At the same time, we have acted in a deliberate manner aimed at defusing the general situation in eastern Syria and in Iraq. “
Turkey-based Syrian commentator Abdulkader Dwehe said the choice of Syria was a good one.
“Responding in Iraq could open a front that might be difficult to close,” he tweeted after the attack. “With the Boukamal strike, a precious point and a political rather than a military message were formulated.”
FOLLOWING IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF OTHER AMERICAN PRESIDENTS
In its first few weeks, the new Biden administration has stressed its intention to focus on the challenges posed by China – even as volatility and threats to US interests persist in the Middle East.
But the operation proved that the region is never far from the agenda of an American president.
In hitting Syria, Biden joins every US president since Ronald Reagan who ordered a bombing of countries in the Middle East.