Over the last three weeks, there has been a notable escalation in attacks targeting international coalition bases in northeastern Syria orchestrated by Iranian-backed militias operating in Iraq and Syria. Concurrently, there have been reports indicating the establishment of operational centers aimed at coordinating these strikes. These developments appear to be part of an effort to exploit the widespread popular discontent with the United States and Israel, with the strategic aim of expanding and consolidating Iranian influence in Syria. This surge in tensions comes against the backdrop of the war in Gaza that began just over a month ago, involving hostilities between Israel and several Palestinian factions, principally Hamas.

Over the past two weeks, there have been near-daily assaults targeting the American forces' headquarters in eastern Syria. These attacks have been concentrated at the al-Omar Field and Conoco plant bases in the Deir ez-Zor countryside; the Kharab al-Jir base, Tal Beydar, and al-Shaddadi in the al-Hasakah countryside; as well as the al-Tanf base near the tri-border area of Syria, Iraq, and Jordan. The methods of attack have been varied, encompassing drone strikes, improvised missiles, and mortar shells. The attacks have occurred in parallel with similar activities in Iraq, and there have been threats of increasing escalation in the days ahead.

According to the Pentagon, the U.S. military carried out airstrikes against Iranian militias in Deir ez-Zor on Oct. 26, a second attack against sites belonging to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) in Deir ez-Zor on Nov. 9, and a third set of precision strikes against the IRGC and Iranian-linked groups in Abu Kamal and al-Mayadin on Nov. 12. As the Pentagon's statement acknowledged, between Oct. 17 and Nov. 9 U.S. and international coalition forces were attacked at least 46 times, of which 24 were in Iraq and 22 in Syria. The attacks involved the use of drones and missiles, 56 U.S. troops were injured, and a contractor died of a heart attack. The Pentagon has made it clear that Washington does not seek to escalate the conflict and that these strikes were carried out in self-defense to protect U.S. forces.

In recent days, multiple statements have come out claiming responsibility for the attacks on American forces in Syria, attributed to a group identifying itself as "The Islamic Resistance in Iraq." This designation mirrors that of Lebanese Hezbollah, known as "The Islamic Resistance in Lebanon." The choice of name, rather than attributing the attacks to Iraqi or Syrian factions, appears to be a strategic decision aimed at avoiding political embarrassment for the Iraqi government or the Bashar al-Assad regime, thereby preventing additional political pressure from being imposed on their allies.

As disclosed by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a meeting reportedly took place in al-Bukamal last week aimed at coordinating the Islamic Resistance in Iraq’s activities. This entity is recognized as a joint operations center comprising representatives from various militia factions of the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq, the Fatemiyoun and Zainabiyoun militias, Lebanese Hezbollah, the 47th Regiment, Saraya al-Khorasani, as well as local factions including Hezbollah’s Task Force — a militia led by Hezbollah leader Hajj Mahdi — and the Hashemite Brigade.

According to confidential sources from Deir ez-Zor, the operations center has been established with a mandate to coordinate activities among the militia leaders in the field along three strategic axes. The first axis involves the orchestration of missile and drone strikes targeting coalition bases situated on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River. These assaults are initiated from the al-Bukamal countryside and al-Ashara, as well as from the districts of al-Mayadin city and the vicinity of Deir ez-Zor. The second axis is dedicated to coordinating missile and drone attacks on the al-Tanf base, through collaborative efforts between factions operating in the Syrian and Iraqi deserts, on both sides of the border. The third axis focuses on the coordination of clandestine security units active in the countryside of al-Hasakah, tasked with surveillance of coalition bases in the region. These groups are associated with the Saraya al-Khorasani militia in al-Hasakah city and the Task Force militia directed by Hezbollah’s Hajj Mahdi in Qamishli.

These operations rely on elite forces that were trained in groups over the past year in the Dimas Camp near Damascus and training camps near al-Mayadin city. Some groups were trained on how to carry out drone and rocket attacks, while other groups were taught security operations and information gathering techniques under the supervision of Hezbollah leaders in the Damascus countryside and the party’s centers in Lebanon.

Information obtained from a source within the Task Force militia headquarters in the Qamishli countryside suggests that intensive meetings have been conducted by Hajj Mahdi and other Iranian leaders across the Qamishli countryside, al-Hasakah city, and the Deir ez-Zor countryside. The purpose of these meetings was to prepare the Iranian militias for a calculated escalation against American bases, ensuring that the attacks are coordinated and increasingly effective, yet calibrated to avoid provoking a substantial American retaliation. This approach mirrors the strategy that Hezbollah has been implementing in southern Lebanon against Israel since Oct. 7, as indicated by statements from sources close to Hajj Mahdi a few days ago. There is an implied threat of further escalation, contingent upon assessing the international coalition forces' response to the current attacks, while also leveraging the American reluctance to widen the conflict and open new fronts.

In recent months, there has been a significant influx of weaponry into the Qamishli countryside and al-Hasakah city. Armaments are delivered weekly from Damascus to Qamishli Airport via Ilyushin aircraft, as part of the systematic military reinforcement of regime forces stationed in Qamishli and its countryside. The shipments have predominantly consisted of precision sniper rifles, night vision equipment, small drones, explosive devices, medium-caliber machine guns, and mortar guns. Concurrently, there has been an uptick in the intensive training of local factions, with regular dispatches of these groups to Damascus and Deir ez-Zor. Moreover, the past weeks have seen substantial relocations of Saraya al-Khorasani militia members to the Deir ez-Zor countryside. Security detachments have also been stationed near al-Shaddadi and Tal Hamis, tasked with maintaining surveillance of coalition forces' activities at the al-Shaddadi and Kharab al-Jir bases in the al-Hasakah countryside.

The recent Iranian escalation was anticipated, with reports from the Middle East Institute last year detailing Iranian efforts to consolidate its sway in eastern Syria as part of Tehran’s broader “carpet-weaving” strategy. This includes plans to target international coalition bases through the initiation of “popular resistance” and security operations aimed at American forces, with the ultimate aim of compelling them to withdraw and paving the way for a greater Iranian presence. Central to these efforts has been the mobilization of the Saraya al-Khorasani militia, affiliated with the IRGC and operating in al-Hasakah city, as well as Hezbollah’s Task Force militia, in the southern countryside of Qamishli. Furthermore, Iran has been trying to garner popular support by backing Arab tribal leaders in an effort to exploit tribal discontent with the discriminatory practices of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) against local populations and the perceived indifference of the coalition towards such policies.

Recent developments suggest that Iran, via its proxies in eastern Syria, is poised to continue its attacks on international coalition bases, strategically timing its operations to execute more impactful attacks that inflict substantial losses. This strategy may exploit a number of elements, with the coalition's hesitant response to these attacks being particularly significant. As per sources' assessments, these militias have started to prepare for larger-scale offensives from within SDF-controlled territories near to the American bases. This constitutes a perilous escalation that endangers not only the coalition forces, but also the safety of local inhabitants.

As these militias continue to try to rally the local populace against American forces and associate them with the Israeli offensive against the Palestinians in Gaza, they engender a pervasive mood of popular resistance. This burgeoning resistance may compel coalition forces to contemplate a strategic withdrawal from the region or remain confined within their bases. Such a move would pave the way for Iranian-backed militias to entrench the security turmoil and amplify their sway in the region, to the detriment of the SDF.

The coalition's prolonged and unexplained silence on the issue of Iranian reinforcements, coupled with Washington's disregard for Tehran’s concerted efforts to expand its influence in the eastern Euphrates region — even within territories controlled by its ally, the SDF — has led us to a critical juncture. It may now be too late to reverse the tide, posing a threat that could make the region a flashpoint for an international conflict, with the local populace as its fuel. Through its recent escalatory actions, Iran seeks to demonstrate the breadth of its sway and its cohesive, unified command over operations spanning from southern Lebanon through eastern Syria to Iraq and reaching as far as the Houthis in Yemen. This strategic posturing could potentially give Iran leverage in any forthcoming political negotiations, positioning it to emerge as the sole beneficiary of the ongoing turmoil in the region, to the detriment of the local inhabitants of these areas.


Samer al-Ahmed is a Syrian journalist and researcher who focuses on developments in northeastern Syria. He is a master’s student in international relations and has written multiple reports and research papers for Arab and international centers. You can follow him on Twitter @sameralahmadnq.

U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Julio Hernandez

The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.