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U.S.-Iran Clashes in Syria and Iraq: Exchange of Messages or Serious Escalation?

On June 27, President Joe Biden ordered U.S. airstrikes to be carried out against facilities on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border. This marks the second time that the U.S. government has taken military action in the region since Biden assumed office in January. It comes at a moment when the Biden administration is working on reviving the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which President Donald Trump withdrew from in 2018.

In a statement, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said, “The targets were selected because these facilities are utilized by Iran-backed militias that are engaged in unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) attacks against U.S. personnel and facilities in Iraq.” Kirby also said the facilities were used by at least two militias, Kata’ib Hezbollah and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada. Both militias are part of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), a state-sponsored umbrella that is composed of roughly fifty paramilitary groups. The PMU is known to be trained and logistically supported by Iran.

Biden’s actions have come amid an escalation of violence between U.S. forces and Iran-backed militia groups. Most recently, on the morning of July 8, two rockets were fired at the U.S. Embassy inside the Green Zone in Baghdad. The embassy’s missile defense system deflected one, while the other landed outside the zone’s perimeter. No casualties were reported.

The Significance of al-Qa’im-Albu Kamal Border Crossing

The border area between the Iraqi al-Qa’im and Syrian Albu Kamal districts is considered one of three official border crossings between both countries (the other two are the Tanf-Walid and Rabia-Yarubiyah crossings). The area has been a crucial crossing point for insurgents since the onset of the Iraqi insurgency in the mid-2000s. Iraq closed the border crossing in 2012, following the eruption of the Syrian Civil War. Two years later, the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) seized the area, but they were driven out by 2017. The crossing reopened in 2019, elevating the area’s significance as the other two crossing areas are still closed.

For Iran, the border crossing has unique strategic value. Since the Islamic State’s defeat, several Iranian-backed militias have passed through the border crossing. The area became a vital passage for Tehran to project its influence in the region. Last year, many PMU fighters were reportedly deployed to Idlib in northwestern Syria – during the Syrian government forces offensive to recapture the province – passing through the al-Qa’im-Albu Kamal border crossing.

In recognition of its importance to Iran, the United States and Israel have frequently launched airstrikes against the militias in the border area. “The American and Israeli airstrikes are not meant to eliminate the militia presence; rather they are meant to put Iran on notice that there is a certain level of militia activity above which the U.S. and Israel will not tolerate,” David Lesch, professor of Middle East History at Trinity University in Texas whose most recent book is Syria: A Modern History, explained. “For Tel Aviv, it is also about keeping pro-Iranian groups distance from Israeli border. For Washington, it seems to be a tit-for-tat calibration of action and reaction that the U.S. hopes will show Iran that, unlike in Afghanistan, it is not leaving Iraq.”

In March 2020, the U.S. handed over its base in al-Qa’im to the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), increasing Iran’s maneuvering power in the border area. Over the past year, Kata’ib Hazbollah and other militias have been able to tighten their grip on the area, in spite of measures to reduce the militias’ influence in Iraq. “The U.S. withdrawal from al-Qa`im has helped facilitate the expansion of the militia presence, but it seems to reflect Iran’s overall intent to secure its influence in Iraq, especially in light of recent attempts by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies to woo Baghdad away from Iran,” Lesch said.[3]

A New American Red Line?

The recent U.S. airstrikes come after the Biden administration has faced pressure from congressional leaders to retaliate against drone attacks targeting American troops in Iraq. This year, there have been at least five separate drone attacks against American personnel in the region. Such attacks have become more common since the killing of Iranian Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani and senior Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in a U.S. airstrike last year.

By conducting the recent airstrikes, the Biden administration is asserting that the U.S. will respond to attacks against its personnel, even if they do not result in U.S. casualties. It has been reported that Washington has passed this message to Tehran through diplomatic channels. If Washington adopts this approach, it would mark a shift in U.S. policy from the Trump administration, which drew the “red line” at the killing of an American.

Peripherally, the Biden administration may also be reassuring its regional partners that Washington’s revival of the JCPOA will not mean that the U.S. will give Iran the opportunity to do whatever it wants. Domestically, the recent airstrikes can be seen in the context of Biden answering to critiques made by the Republicans, who have accused him of weakness against Tehran.

The rocket attacks on the morning of July 8 are the latest incident in a string of attacks against U.S. targets. Iran-backed militias fired rockets on June 28, at al-Omar oil field in eastern Syria, pushing the American forces to return fire. One week later, on July 5, three rockets hit Ain al-Assad air base in Anbar province, western Iraq. On the same day, American forces shot down an armed drone above the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. On July 6, a drone attacked Erbil airport in northern Iraq with explosives, aiming at the U.S. base on the airport grounds. On July 7, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and American forces thwarted a drone attack at al-Omar oil field. On the same day, Ain al-Assad air base was attacked by 14 rockets. The latter attack in western Iraq, resulted in two personnel sustaining minor injuries.

For Iran, it seems that it is attempting to demonstrate its ability to strike at U.S. targets through these attacks. “The IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] is trying to send the signal to the United States that it can deploy Iraqi militias to attack and degrade U.S. forces at will. Iran is following a “death by ant bites” strategy, utilizing Iraqi militias to hit at U.S. forces and daring the United States to escalate militarily in a manner that would give Iran the excuse to accelerate its gray zone campaign to force the U.S. from Iraq and Syria,” Nicholas Heras, a Senior Analyst at the Newlines Institute, said.[4] “Iraq in particular is the prize that Iran is trying to secure, and the IRGC believes that through a kinetic campaign against U.S. forces combined with political pressure [inside] Iraq, it can squeeze the U.S. out and dominate the future of Iraq. For Iran, Iraqi militia attacks are a form of geopolitical bargaining with the U.S., a negotiation that the IRGC is making at great risk, but which it does not intend to lose.”[5] Thus, while the U.S. administration is seemingly willing to establish a new red line, it remains to be seen how it will respond to these attacks.

The Impact on the JCPOA

It is unlikely that the June 27 U.S. airstrikes on the Iraq-Syria border area will have a severe impact on indirect U.S.-Iran talks in Vienna. It is clear, however, that a dramatic escalation could dissolve the talks, which is not what the Biden administration wants.

“The recent U.S. airstrikes on the Iraqi-Syria border will only disrupt the Vienna talks if the two parties want them to. The Biden Administration does not want the strikes to disrupt the talks, but is using the prospect of an agreement to test the limits of its ability to react to Iranian proxies. It is less clear what the breaking point is for the Iranian side, given the recent election results,” Gregory Gause, head of the International Affairs Department at Texas A&M University, summarized.[6] “Iran is also playing a brinkmanship game here, allowing an agreement with the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] on inspections to lapse. The fact that the talks are continuing is an indication that neither side wants to break them off. But they are both testing the limits of the other.”[7]

For Biden, saving the JCPOA would allow Washington to use it as a means of pressuring Tehran to address other subjects, such as its expanded arsenal. However, Biden has been facing complications surrounding dealing with Tehran from different directions. Thus, even if Biden revives the JCPOA, it is unclear if he will be able to use its momentum to negotiate follow-on agreements.

Condemnation of the Airstrikes and Iraq’s Difficult Position

As expected, Syria, Iran, Iraq’s PMUs, and other Iranian-backed militias have all condemned the U.S. airstrikes. In Iraq, both the military and government issued condemnations of the American airstrikes too. Iraqi officials have reportedly urged Washington not to conduct retaliatory strikes on Iraq’s soil, arguing that this would complicate the delicate politics surrounding the American-led coalition troops in the county. Indeed, the number of American forces in Iraq has been reduced to 2,500 troops since last year. This came after the Iraqi parliament voted in favor of expelling all U.S. forces from the country in the wake of the killing of Soleimani and al-Muhandis. U.S. airstrikes would only increase pressure on Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s government to expel the remaining American troops in the country, weakening its influence. Al-Kadhimi is under pressure from all sides; while Iran attempts to minimize the U.S. role in the country, Washington is demanding the Iraqi prime minister to rein in the militias’ attacks on America’s interests in Iraq, placing the government in an unenviable position.

Certainly, Baghdad does not want Iraq to become a battleground for a conflict between Iran and the United States. Khalil Jahshan, Executive Director of Arab Center Washington DC, argued that both “the attacks on American targets in Iraq and counterattack by the U.S. on these militias allegedly involved in the attacks tend to undermine” the sovereignty and credibility of Iraq, “even though the U.S. defends itself as being in Iraq by invitation from the Iraqi government.”[8]

Jahshan further said, “No government would like to see challenges domestically to its control of the country security-wise, whether by homemade militias, or by influential neighbors like Iran in the case of Iraq, or by the presence of U.S. troops on Iraqi soil.”[9] He added, “All these tend to portray the Iraqi government as weak, as it is on the defensive because it doesn’t want to be caught between all these conflicting parties, and it doesn’t want Iraq to be basically a stage for external fights, particularly between Tehran and Washington. It sees this as a lose-lose situation, and it would like to avoid it.”[10]

It is believed that al-Kadhimi will soon be conducting a visit to the U.S., where he will meet President Biden. This will be the Iraqi leader’s second official visit to the United States. The two heads of state are expected to discuss the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq. It remains to be seen if any policy changes will come about from the visit.

Abdulaziz Kilani is a British-Arab writer, who focuses on the Middle East and North Africa region.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.



[1] David Lesch, email interview with Author, 2 July 2021

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Nicholas Heras, email interview with Author, 7 July 2021

[5] Ibid

[6] Gregory Gause, email interview with Author, 1 July 2021

[7] Ibid

[8] Khalil Jahshan, telephone interview with Author, 30 June 2021

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid

Abdulaziz Kilani is a British-Arab writer, who focuses on the Middle East and North Africa region. His articles and work have been published by several media outlets, including Middle East Eye, Responsible Statecraft, The American Conservative, and The Globe Post. He tweets as @AZ_Kilani.

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