March 27, 2023

IntelBrief: Implications of Escalating U.S. Clashes with Iran-Backed Forces in Syria

AP Photo/Baderkhan Ahmad

Bottom Line up Front

  • The late March clashes between U.S. and Iran-backed militia forces in eastern Syria upended U.S. hopes that an Iran-Saudi rapprochement would usher in a period of regional stability and raised the potential for expanded U.S.-Iran hostilities.
  • Iran’s alignment with Russia, and the willingness of the Arab Gulf states to engage with Tehran, have emboldened Iran’s leadership to assert Iran’s regional influence.
  • The clashes in eastern Syria will not cause the United States to end the anti-Islamic State mission in Syria and Iraq but might set back U.S. and international hopes for a political solution to the long-running conflict in Yemen.
  • Israeli leaders will view the U.S.-Iran clashes in Syria as justification for escalating Israeli air operations against Iran-linked military infrastructure and militia positions in Syria, or possibly to attack inside Iran.

A series of clashes in Syria between U.S. forces and militia elements linked to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was sparked by a March 23 attack by an Iran-made one-way armed drone (“kamikaze drone”) on a U.S. military base near the city of Hasakah, in the Kurdish-inhabited north. The drone, which reportedly crashed into base facilities without firing its weaponry, killed one U.S. contractor and wounded five U.S. military personnel and one additional U.S. contractor. President Biden authorized immediate U.S. retaliation on several IRGC-run bases in eastern Syria, killing, according to independent observer organizations, 19 persons, including Syrian military personnel, Iran-backed Syrian militia fighters, and several foreign nationals who might be members of Lebanese Hezbollah, Iran’s closest regional ally. The IRGC-aided forces that were struck are part of Iran’s efforts to help the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad to regain control over all Syrian territory as well as to establish a secure land corridor for Tehran to arm Hezbollah. The U.S. forces that were attacked are part of a 900-person U.S. contingent, located on a string of small bases, that works with Syrian partner fighters to combat Islamic State organization (ISIS) fighters still operating in Syria. The U.S. Congress has not authorized the use of U.S. force to combat Iran, but the President can order U.S. forces to respond to Iranian or Iran-backed attacks without formal war authorization. The U.S. retaliation was consistent with past U.S. responses when Iran-backed fighters struck and killed U.S. personnel in Iraq or Syria. The commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), Gen. Michael Kurilla, who has responsibility for U.S. forces throughout the Middle East area of operations, testified before Congress on March 23 that Iran-backed forces have launched 78 attacks on U.S. facilities in Syria since January 2021. On March 24, in response to the U.S. retaliatory strike, Iran-backed forces launched drone and rocket attacks on several other U.S. bases in eastern Syria, reportedly wounding one U.S. military member but otherwise causing no casualties. The tit-for-tat is expected to continue.

The clashes raise questions about whether the United States and Iran might be entering a period of sustained and escalating conflict. Although not directly blaming Iran for the attacks, U.S. officials held Iran responsible because of the IRGC’s control over the facilities, personnel, and weaponry used in the attacks, even if IRGC personnel themselves might not have launched the strikes. On March 24, at a news conference in Ottawa during a state visit to the Canadian capital, President Biden apparently sought to downplay the possibility of broader U.S.-Iran hostilities, stating: “Make no mistake, the United States does not, does not, I emphasize, seek conflict with Iran…But be prepared for us to act forcefully to protect our people.” Addressing the widespread assessments that the Syria clashes might prompt the Administration to end the anti-ISIS mission there, President Biden told journalists that the United States was “not going to stop” fighting ISIS in the region. In recent weeks, U.S. forces in Syria have conducted several raids against ISIS financial facilitators and other operatives. U.S. officials said in March that the anti-ISIS mission cannot end until the roughly 10,000 ISIS fighters imprisoned by Kurdish and other pro-U.S. groups in eastern Syria can be repatriated elsewhere. Approximately 50,000 family members of ISIS captives are confined to camps in eastern Syria and require repatriation. Still, if U.S. and IRGC-supported facilities remain in close proximity in eastern Syria, the potential for additional U.S.-Iran clashes there is high.

Yet, the cycle of attacks and retaliation in Syria set back hopes that tensions in the region, generally, might be decreasing, enabling U.S. officials to focus on more pressing concerns such as the war in Ukraine. The March 10 China-brokered agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia seemed to signal that Iran wanted to focus on diplomacy rather than forcefully promoting its regional influence. But the Iran-instigated Syria clashes suggest that Iranian leaders might have interpreted the Saudi rapprochement as a sign of weakness on the part of Tehran’s adversaries – weakness from which Iran can press its advantage. Alternately, Iranian leaders might have calculated that their expanding strategic alignment with Russia – their partner in securing the Assad regime – would deter the United States or other actors from retaliating for Iranian actions in Syria or elsewhere in the region. The attacks on U.S. facilities not only puts the agreed rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, which is a close U.S. partner, in jeopardy, but might also derail a reported move toward Saudi normalization with the Assad regime.

For the region, the attacks on U.S personnel raise questions about whether Iran intends to fulfill its reported commitment to Saudi Arabia, in their China-mediated agreement, to cease supplying lethal weaponry to the Houthi movement that ousted the U.N.-recognized Republic of Yemen Government. Iran’s accord with the Kingdom, which is the key backer of the Yemen government, raised hopes among global officials for an end to the nine-year long civil conflict in Yemen that has left much of the population undersupplied with needed food and vital items. The Syria violence might signal Iran’s intent to back renewed attacks by the Houthis on Saudi territory, using Iran-supplied drones and ballistic missiles. The clashes in Syria also raise new U.S. and European concerns about whether Tehran intends to uphold its commitments to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in early March to provide additional transparency and monitoring access to its uranium enrichment activities. The pledges came during a visit to Iran by IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi, reflecting IAEA and international concerns about Iran’s enrichment of uranium to 60% purity – a level from which it is not difficult to produce weapons-grade uranium (90% enriched) at the hardened, underground Fordow facility.

The U.S.-Iran clashes in Syria increase the potential for Israel to escalate its air operations in Syria, virtually all of which have, to date, targeted Iranian military infrastructure and Iran-backed militia forces in the country. Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who returned to power in late 2022, has consistently advocated military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities. He has approved Israeli covert actions against nuclear and other strategic sites inside Iran. Netanyahu is likely to cite Iranian attacks on U.S. forces in Syria as justification for expanding attacks on Iran-linked locations in Syria, even if Israeli military officials routinely refuse to comment publicly on Israeli attacks against Iranian or Iran-linked targets in the region. Many IRGC-run sites in Syria host forces of Lebanese Hezbollah, which has been helping Tehran secure the Assad regime and remains one of Tel Aviv’s most significant adversaries.