The US carried out an airstrike on 25 February targeting what it described as “Iran-backed militias” in Syria in the first military operation by the new administration of US President Joe Biden.
The Pentagon said that US military forces had carried out an airstrike in Syria that destroyed infrastructure used by radical groups backed by Iran in the east of the country and at a border crossing used by these groups.
It said it was a calculated move aimed to prevent escalation in eastern Syria and Iraq.
The US did not specify which targets it had in mind, but the airstrike was confirmed when Syria condemned the US attack, describing it as “cowardly”. The Syrian Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying the attack was “a bad signal regarding the new US administration’s policies, which should comply with international rules.”
The strikes were limited and did not result in significant damage, making them unlikely to trigger escalation any time soon. Preliminary reports by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a NGO, said the US strikes had destroyed three ammunition trucks approaching from Iraq to an illegal border crossing south of the Syrian city of Al-Bukamal.
Rami Abdel-Rahman, director of the SOHR, said that “some 17 combatants were killed, according to preliminary reports by the Popular Mobilisation Forces,” a reference to the Iraqi paramilitary forces loyal to Iran.
In a statement, Pentagon Press Spokesman John Kirby described the strikes as “defensive,” adding that they were “authorised in response to recent attacks on US troops and coalition forces in Iraq and continued threats against them.”
Unofficial US sources said the strikes aimed to send the signal that the US wants to punish radical groups loyal to Iran but does not want the situation to escalate.
It is unclear if the strikes will impact US efforts to convince Iran to negotiate a new nuclear deal after Washington withdrew from the original one in 2018 under former president Donald Trump, or if they are in response to the missile attacks over recent days on a military base for US troops in northern Iraq and in the Green Zone in Baghdad where the US embassy and other diplomatic missions are located.
Russia condemned the US airstrikes, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov saying Washington had warned Moscow only four minutes before they took place. He called on the US to resume communications on Syria with Russia to clarify the position of the Biden administration.
The Russian Foreign Ministry condemned the strikes, describing them as “in violation of international law and Syria’s sovereignty.”
Moscow views the Iranian presence in Syria as aiding “the legitimate government” of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and coming in response to requests from the regime to fight against what it describes as “terrorists”.
Russia believes the presence of other foreign troops in Syria is illegitimate since permission was not officially given by the Syrian regime.
Iran described the US airstrikes as “a flagrant violation of human rights and international law,” warning that the action could result in military escalation and destabilise the region, according to statements by Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh.
“These attacks are a continuation of recurring assaults by the Zionist entity on Syrian territory and came at a time when US troops have been illegitimately present in Syria for years, pillaging the country’s natural resources, including oil, which is the property of the Syrian people,” Khatibzadeh said, in a reference to Israel.
Firas Talal, a Syrian dissident and son of a former minister of defence, commented that “I have studied the impact of Israeli airstrikes on Iranian and Syrian positions inside Syria. They were exercises on cardboard positions in empty areas. The few deaths have been nothing more than collateral damage. We must analyse the reasons behind them.”
Israel welcomed the US airstrikes, with Israeli officials saying it was “very reassured by these attacks and sees them as a good indicator of the position of the new Biden administration towards Iran.”
Since the targeted weapons shipments came from Iraq, this means that information was given to the US by the Iraqis in a shift in Iraq’s position since the leadership in Baghdad is closely allied to Tehran.
It could mean that the US has started to gain ground in Iraq at the expense of Iran.
Some commentators were surprised at how quickly Biden had moved on the Syrian issue, approving military strikes in the country just weeks after coming to office.
Biden is most likely concerned about Iran’s movements or is making a preemptive move to curb Iran’s influence in Syria, which is disturbing to the US and Israel. The use of force is always an option for a Democrat administration, even though it says it prefers to take a diplomatic route in global crises.
The US delivered several messages to several parties by carrying out the airstrikes. It sent a message to Iran that it is still in the crosshairs and that Washington will respond to any Iranian actions and will not appear weak in confronting threats against US soldiers.
The message to Russia, Iran’s key ally in Syria, is that the US will not make exceptions for Russia’s allies and that Russia does not have any special status. The message to the Syrian regime is that it should dismantle its relationship with Iran.
Finally, the strikes are a message to regional and international players in Syria that the US will remain the strongman of the region and its military presence in Syria and Iraq will continue as long as these two countries are characterised by chaos or instability.
Most likely, the messages have been understood and the recipients will heed their meanings. However, if they respond, the Middle East could be in for difficult months ahead, with Syria once again becoming a battlefield to settle scores between rival regional and international players with conflicting interests.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly