U.S. military strikes Iranian assets in Syria after weeks of militia attacks

The U.S. military attacked two weapons storage facilities in Syria that were used by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and its militia proxies on Oct. 27. The U.S. strikes are in response to a spate of assaults on U.S. military bases in Iraq and Syria since the war broke out between Israel and Palestinian terror groups. The U.S. believes the strikes will deter further attacks on U.S. facilities in the region, and is attempting to delink the militia assaults from Israel’s war against Hamas and its allies. The Iran-backed militias disagree.

Two U.S. F-16 fighters “struck weapons and ammunition storage areas that were connected to the IRGC,” near Boukamal in Syria, the Associated Press reported. It is unclear if there were any casualties, and it does not appear that Iranian personnel were directly targeted.

“These precision self-defense strikes are a response to a series of ongoing and mostly unsuccessful attacks against U.S. personnel in Iraq and Syria by Iranian-backed militia groups,” U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in a statement released by the Department of Defense.

The strikes, which Austin described as “narrowly-tailored,” clearly are designed to send a message to the Iranians to reign in their militias, which have launched at least 19 strikes on U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria since Oct. 17. Dozens of U.S. personnel have been wounded in the strikes, which Austin again described as “mostly unsuccessful.”

The strikes are designed to impose deterrence on Iran and its militias in Iraq and Syria. However Austin’s statement is worded in a way that indicates the U.S. is reluctant to use force. Iran and the militias may read it that way.

“The United States does not seek conflict and has no intention nor desire to engage in further hostilities, but these Iranian-backed attacks against U.S. forces are unacceptable and must stop,” Austin said.

Austin also attempted to delink the militia’s attacks and the U.S. military response from Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza.

“They are separate and distinct from the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, and do not constitute a shift in our approach to the Israel-Hamas conflict,” Austin said.

The Shia militias disagree, and their messaging since the war between Israel and Hamas has explicitly linked the U.S. presence in the region and the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

The U.S. military has endured numerous attacks on its bases by the Iran-backed militias long before the war between Israel and Hamas began on Oct. 7. The historical U.S. response has been tepid at best, and usually limited to defensive strikes targeting the attacking forces. Often the militia attacks would go unanswered, which projected weakness by the U.S. and encouraged further militia strikes.

Some of the U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria are sparsely manned and are in remote locations, and likely would be in danger of being overrun if the militias brought the full weight of their military power to bear. Many of these militias are battle-hardened by years of battling the U.S., the Islamic State, and Al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria, and have been armed, trained, and supported by the IRGC. The militias are responsible for killing more than 600 U.S. troops in deadly complex assaults, ambushes, and IED and EFP attacks.

The Biden administration and the U.S. military are banking that two strikes against IRGC weapons depots will deter future attacks on U.S. bases in the region. That is certainly possible, but it is also possible that Iran and the militias double down and attempt to overrun one of the remote U.S. bases. Without the U.S. military reinforcing these bases, which is politically unacceptable for both the Biden administration and the Iraqi government, these bases are at risk from more organized determined attacks by Iran’s proxies in Iraq and Syria in the future.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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