November 14, 2023

IntelBrief: Iran-Backed Militias Pressure U.S. Forces in Iraq and Syria

AP Photo/Kevin Wolf

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria are exploiting the Israel-Hamas war to both support the Palestinian cause and advance their own strategic agendas.
  • The Iraqi and Syrian militias are targeting U.S. forces rather than Israel itself, partly due to their limited capabilities, but also to try to push the U.S. military out of the region.
  • Militia attacks have injured U.S. personnel, prompting three rounds of U.S. retaliation, but have not sparked a full-fledged regional expansion of the Israel-Hamas war to date.
  • Iran-backed militias in Iraq are trying to outflank government leaders who assess that U.S. military help for Iraqi forces is still vital to stability and prosperity.

By targeting U.S. forces deployed in Iraq and Syria, Iran-backed militias seek to advance Tehran’s objectives of pressuring American leaders to remove U.S. ground forces from countries near Iran’s borders. That the Iraqi and Syrian militia attacks are directed against U.S. bases and personnel, rather than Israel, indicates not only that the militias might lack the capability to project power into Israel, but also that they are mainly seeking to advance anti-U.S. objectives rather than directly support Hamas’ conflict. The Iran-backed Houthi movement, by contrast, which is another pillar of Iran’s “axis of resistance,” sought to attack Israel, not the United States, as an expression of direct support for Hamas’ battle against the Israel Defense Force.

The Iran-backed attacks in both Syria and Iraq have raised fears – largely unrealized to date – that the Israel-Hamas war will expand to the entire region. There have been dozens of attacks on U.S. forces using short-range rocket and armed drone assaults since the October 7 Hamas terrorist attack, which have occurred between Iraq and Syria. The militia barrages have resulted in at least 56 injuries among U.S. military personnel, including 25 traumatic brain injuries. In response to the attacks, U.S. forces have launched airstrikes on IRGC weapons storage and command facilities in eastern Syria three times since October 26, including once this past weekend. U.S. officials have also deployed additional air defense equipment to the region, but the Iraqi and Syrian militia volleys have otherwise had little measurable effect on the course of the conflict in Gaza.

The Iran-backed militia attacks in Iraq and in Syria might have a common strategic purpose – to compel a U.S. withdrawal from the region – but their political agendas differ. The pro-Iranian groups in Syria are seeking to keep in power Tehran’s main Arab government ally, Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, and do not seek to challenge Assad or compel him to change his policies. Assad’s regime facilitates IRGC-QF weapons shipments to Lebanese Hezbollah and helps Tehran store and manufacture weapons for Hezbollah as well as the regional armed factions Iran supports. The United States has not had significant diplomatic contact with the Assad regime since the armed uprising against his rule began in 2011, and Washington continues to insist, with limited success, that Assad remains globally isolated. IRGC and militia-manned installations in Syria have been the frequent targets of Israeli air strikes for several years.

The Iran-backed militias in Iraq, by contrast, are significant political actors in their country that seek to change Baghdad’s decision-making and might have the capability to do so. First and foremost, the Iran-supported militia groups in Iraq, composed of Shia fighters long associated with the IRGC-QF, seek to create a rift between Washington and Baghdad that prompts Iraq’s leadership to expel the 2,500 U.S. troops deployed there. Iraq’s Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani was propelled into power in 2022 by the commanders of the Iran-backed militias and other prominent Shia leaders aligned in the “Coordination Framework.” Yet, Sudani has resisted calls from Framework hardliners to ask American forces to leave, assessing that U.S. forces have been crucial to restoring Iraqi stability in recent years. U.S. military power also helped Baghdad defeat ISIS in 2014, prior to which ISIS fighters had captured much of the country’s northern and western territory. Today, American military advisors are seen as essential to keep ISIS remnants at bay. U.S. support for foreign investment in Iraq has also been crucial to the growth of Iraqi oil exports, sparking substantial economic growth and reconstruction after decades of war and insurgency. U.S. officials have sought to reinforce their support for Sudani and urge him to ensure that Iraq does not become embroiled in the Israel-Hamas conflict. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken made a surprise visit to Baghdad on November 5, urging Sudani in their meeting to “hold accountable those responsible for continuing attacks on US personnel in Iraq,” according to a State Department readout of the session.

The Israel-Hamas war has presented Iran’s allies in Iraq with a new opportunity to push Sudani to align with Tehran and break with Washington. Their prior efforts to enact binding legislation in Iraq’s National Assembly to require a U.S. withdrawal were ineffective. Aside from escalating attacks on U.S. forces, Iraqi Shia armed groups invited a Hamas delegation to visit Baghdad on October 27. The Hamas members met with the chief of staff of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), Abdulaziz (Abu Fadak) Al-Muhammadaw. The PMU is an umbrella organization that nominally supervises the Iran-backed militias, but in practice, reports to the IRGC-QF. The visiting Palestinians also met with Qais al-Khazali, the head of Shia political party/paramilitary group Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq. Shortly after October 7, Al-Khazali affirmed to Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh his group’s “readiness for any effort to liberate Al-Quds [Jerusalem] and support the Palestinian people.” The Hamas visit was intended to contrast hardline Iraqi Shia support for the Palestinians with the approach of the Sudani government, which Amwaj Media reported met with the Hamas delegation privately to avoid creating friction with Washington. Still, Sudani has repeatedly expressed support for the Palestinians and their “right to resist Zionist injustice and terrorism” since October 7. The Shia militia leaders also might be seeking to attract popular support ahead of the Iraqi provincial elections scheduled for next month.

Seeking to sideline other Iraqi Shia rivals, the Iran-backed armed groups also want to undermine prominent cleric Moqtada Al Sadr, who has repeatedly demonstrated his popularity in elections and street demonstrations. Perhaps seeking to avoid a rift with Tehran, which has been the subject of Sadrist criticism, the Hamas delegation did not meet with Sadr or any of his top representatives. However, in a statement published to Twitter/X the day the Hamas delegation arrived in Iraq, Sadr called for the U.S. embassy in Baghdad to be shut down over its “support for the Zionist entity.” The variety of threats posed by Iraqi Shia groups caused U.S. officials on October 20 to order the departure of eligible family members and non-emergency U.S. government personnel from the U.S. embassy in Baghdad as well as the consulate in Erbil, which serves Iraq’s Kurdistan region. The diplomatic departures suggested that, to some degree, hardline Iraqi Shias might be advancing their goal to reduce U.S. influence in Iraq, even if U.S. leaders oppose any military drawdown from Iraq.