Militia Countermeasures: The US Airstrikes in the Middle East

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On the evening of Saturday, Feb. 3,  US warplanes struck facilities operated by Terrorists and Iran-backed militias in Syria and Iraq, in revenge for the demise of 3 US service members in a Jan. 28 drone raid on Tower 22, a US military command in northeastern Jordan on the Syrian border. The airstrikes mainly targeted locations in eastern Syria and western Iraq.

In Syria, six main buildings were bombed, including the Syrian Border Guard building and al-Sekkeh transiting in al-Bukamal, the livestock marketplace on the outskirts of al-Mayadin, east of Deir ez-Zor, and munitions stations on Cinema Fouad and Port Said roads in the centre of Deir ez-Zor city. West of the city, the airstrikes targeted the strategic Ayyash weapons station and a militia base in the desert outside al-Tabni town.

Meanwhile, in Iraq, the airstrikes specifically targeted al-Anbar Governorate, especially the border regions with Syria, including a facility utilised by the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) and pro-Iran militias in al-Qa’im and Akashat, where their authority and communication centres are found on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border. According to preliminary announcements, the airstrikes in Syria eradicated 29 members of militias, including 9 Syrians, 6 Iraqis, 6 members of Lebanese Hezbollah, and 8 unknown 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 eradicated 16 people and injured 24, according to the Iraqi government, which said that “the bombing in al-Qa’im and Akashat in western Anbar pushed civilian deaths.”

Apart from the reality that they sought to deter and react to the latest attack, the US airstrikes differed from earlier military actions in several ways, both at the functional level and in terms of their overall objective.

The operational change was clear in the choice of targets: For the first time, US warplanes attacked military targets affiliated with pro-Iran militias in the centre of Deir ez-Zor. The airstrikes targeted weapons and munitions stations near the al-Umran Institution on Port Said Street and a weapons depot on Cinema Fouad Street, in expansion to the al-Jabal outlook heading Deir-ez-Zor city and its military airport.

These are some of the most tightly protected locations in the densely populated city, operated by Iranian militias as weapons depots and centres to oversee procedures against US forces stationed in the Green Village at the al-Omar oil area base and the Conoco gas field base, which are the two most significant US bases in Deir ez-Zor Governorate. In addition to the operational shift, the US airstrikes were characterised by a change in their overall goal. The strikes did not seek to generate the greatest possible number of casualties or target the leaders of Iranian militias in Syria and Iraq; rather, they aimed to undermine the military capabilities and the power and control posts of those militias, in an attempt to lower their ability to carry out similar attacks in the future.

A clear signal that the US objective was to eliminate those militias’ military capabilities is the nature of the targets chosen. In Anbar, the airstrikes targeted the headquarters of the PMF and Iranian militias in al-Qa’im and Akashat, which used to coordinate between their Iraqi and Syrian branches. These posts also handle the transport of weapons and fighters between the two countries and handle the intelligence used to project attacks against US forces, most recently the Tower 22 and al-Omar attacks. 

The strikes 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 damages the capabilities of those militias, the latter still pose a danger, given their ability to fill their weapons and munitions from Iran through Iraq.

In light of the above, it can be stated that the US reaction to the Tower 22 attack was less intense and more restrained than expected, in line with the estimated escalation strategy governing the conflict between the US and Iran. On the one hand, this allows the two countries to avoid a conflict that is in neither party’s interest at the moment; and, on the other hand, the US strikes, given their fixed nature, did not elicit retribution from militias in Syria and Iraq against US forces and interests in both countries. Following this incident, Iran is likely to reconsider its strategy vis-à-vis its proxies in the territory to prevent an escalation that Tehran wishes to bypass at present, especially since it has repeated on every occasion that it does not seek a confrontation barring an attack on Iranian soil.

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