On the evening of Saturday, Feb. 3, local time, US warplanes bombed facilities used by Iranian forces and Iran-backed militias in Syria and Iraq, in retaliation for the death of 3 US service members in a Jan. 28 drone attack on Tower 22, a US military base in northeastern Jordan on the Syrian border. The airstrikes primarily targeted locations in eastern Syria and western Iraq.
In Syria, six main facilities were bombed, including the Syrian Border Guard building and al-Sekkeh crossing in al-Bukamal, the livestock market area on the outskirts of al-Mayadin, east of Deir ez-Zor, and munitions depots on Cinema Fouad and Port Said streets in the center of Deir ez-Zor city. West of the city, the airstrikes targeted the strategic Ayyash weapons depot and an Iranian militia base in the desert outside al-Tabni town.
Meanwhile, in Iraq, the airstrikes mainly targeted al-Anbar Governorate, especially the border areas with Syria, including a facility used by the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) and pro-Iran militias in al-Qa’im and Akashat, where their command and communication centers are located on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border.
According to preliminary reports, the airstrikes in Syria killed 29 members of Iranian militias, including 9 Syrians, 6 Iraqis, 6 members of Lebanese Hezbollah, and 8 unidentified persons, likely to be Afghans and Iranians. In total, 10 people were killed in al-Mayadin and 10 in Deir ez-Zor and the Ayyash depot.
In Iraq, the airstrikes killed 16 people and injured 24, according to the Iraqi government, which stated that “the bombing in al-Qa’im and Akashat in western Anbar caused civilian deaths.”
Apart from the fact that they sought to deter and respond to the latest attack, the US airstrikes differed from previous military actions in several ways, both at the operational level and in terms of their overall objective.
The operational shift was clear in the choice of targets: For the first time, US warplanes bombed military targets affiliated with pro-Iran militias in the center of Deir ez-Zor. The airstrikes targeted weapons and munitions depots near al-Umran Institution on Port Said Street and a weapons depot on Cinema Fouad Street, in addition to the al-Jabal outlook overseeing Deir-ez-Zor city and its military airport.
These are some of the most tightly guarded locations in the densely populated city, used by Iranian militias as weapons depots and centers to oversee operations against US forces stationed in the Green Village at the al-Omar oil field base and the Conoco gas field base, which are the two most important US bases in Deir ez-Zor Governorate.
In addition to the operational shift, the US airstrikes were also marked by a change in their overall objective. The strikes did not seek to cause the greatest possible number of casualties or target the leaders of Iranian militias in Syria and Iraq; rather, they sought to undermine the military capabilities and the command and control posts of those militias, in an attempt to reduce their ability to carry out similar attacks in the future.
A clear indication that the US objective was to destroy those militias’ military capabilities is the nature of the targets chosen. In Anbar, the airstrikes targeted the posts of the PMF and Iranian militias in al-Qa’im and Akashat, used to coordinate between their Iraqi and their Syrian branches. These posts also oversee the transport of weapons and fighters between the two countries and manage the intelligence used to launch attacks against US forces, most recently the Tower 22 and al-Omar attacks.
The airstrikes also targeted many weapons and munitions depots, including those of the PMF in al-Qa’im and Akashat, Iranian militia depots in al-Bukamal and central Deir ez-Zor, and the Ayyash depots. While this greatly undermines the capabilities of those militias, the latter still pose a threat, given their ability to replenish their weapons and munitions from Iran through Iraq.
Despite their intensity and the range of targets, several factors minimized the impact of the US airstrikes. First, Washington lost the element of surprise by declaring its intention to strike those responsible for the attack that caused the death of 3 US service members. The actual strikes were carried out nearly a week after the announcement, which gave those parties ample time to evacuate and go into hiding. This may be an indication that the US did not wish to exacerbate the conflict in the region, which would explain why no senior leaders were killed in the airstrikes.
Second, the US did not target Iran to avoid expanding the ongoing war and engaging Iran directly. The strikes were carried out in areas controlled by pro-Iran militias on the Syria-Iraq border in the cities of al-Mayadin, Deir ez-Zor, al-Qa’im, and elsewhere. In fact, these areas are routinely targeted by the US and sometimes Israel to avoid striking targets on Iranian soil or even the leaders of Iranian forces in Iraq and Syria who oversee those militias’ activities.
After the US response, several scenarios were anticipated: First, that the strikes would deter militias in Iraq and Syria from attacking US forces temporarily, given that the US tried to communicate the message that the death of its service members is a red line that would entail a military response.
The second scenario, which turned out to be true, expected the attacks by armed groups against US targets to continue, due to the limited scope of the airstrikes against the militias in Syria and Iraq. In reality, as US warplanes were bombing their targets, the so-called “Islamic Resistance” factions targeted the Ain al-Asad Airbase in Anbar Governorate and the al-Harir Airbase in Iraqi Kurdistan. The US base at al-Omar oil field in eastern Deir ez-Zor, Syria, was also struck by missiles, which killed six members of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a key US ally.
In light of the above, it can be said that the US response to the Tower 22 attack was less intense and more restrained than anticipated, in line with the calculated escalation strategy governing the conflict between the US and Iran. On the one hand, this enables the two countries to avoid a direct confrontation that is in neither party’s interest at the moment; and, on the other hand, the US strikes, given their limited nature, did not elicit a retaliation from militias in Syria and Iraq against US forces and interests in both countries.
Following this incident, Iran is likely to rethink its strategy vis-à-vis its proxies in the region to prevent an escalation that Tehran wishes to avoid at present, especially since it has reiterated on every occasion that it does not seek a direct confrontation barring an attack on Iranian soil.
Mohammed Hassan is a Non-Resident Scholar with MEI’s Syria Program and a master’s student in the Department of International Relations at the Higher School of Journalism in Paris. His writings focus on the regions of northern and eastern Syria, especially extremist Islamic groups and tribal societies.
Photo by Ameer Al-Mohammedawi/picture alliance via Getty Images
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