image Photo: Reuters, Flash90

US, Iran tensions flare in Syria

The latest surge of hostilities between Washington and Tehran comes amid diplomatic efforts to revive the 2015 Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal.

By Erin Viner

United States military forces launched air strikes on several targets in the Syrian city of Mayadin in parts of Deir az Zor Province this week in consecutive days of clashes with Iran-backed proxies.

The Ayatollah regime  and its terrorist followers such as Hezbollah have established a foothold in Syria with the deployment of forces aimed at attacking Israel while assisting President Bashar al-Assad battle insurgents in the Syrian Civil War which erupted in 2011. They are deeply entrenched west of the Deir az-Zor Province, located on the western bank of the Euphrates (about 450 km [280 mi] northeast of Damascus);  where they have long targeted the nearby Al Omar oil field across the river near the largest base of US coalition forces in Syria, and are situated to replenish supplies from Iraq through the al-Bukamal Border Crossing.

US forces first deployed into Syria during the administration of then-President Barack Obama in an alliance partnering with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces as part of the campaign to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS) terror group. An estimated 900 US troops remain in Syria, the majority of whom are deployed in the eastern sector of the Arab Republic.

The Pentagon reported that three American service members suffered minor injuries Tuesday when the terror factions launched two separate attacks starting at approximately 7:20 PM local time (1720 GMT) on Wednesday. Several rockets penetrated the perimeter of Mission Support Site Conoco in northeast Syria, followed in quick succession by rocket fire near Mission Support Site Green Village.

Central Command (CENTCOM) said that one of the wounded at Mission Support Site Conoco returned to duty after treatment, while two others were being evaluated for minor injuries. Some injuries, including brain trauma, can manifest after an incident.

“We are closely monitoring the situation,” said CENTCOM Commander General Michael “Erik” Kurilla in a statement.

Swift reprisal by US helicopters killed four militants and destroyed seven rocket launchers over the past 24 hours, said a US official yesterday, speaking on the condition of anonymity. At least three of the enemy forces were eliminated as they were preparing a rocket launcher in Deir az Zor.  Initial assessment indicated that three vehicles and equipment used to fire the missiles were destroyed.

“We’re not going to hesitate to defend ourselves. And we’ve communicated this both in the actions that were took last night, the nature of those actions, and also what we have communicated to the Iranians. We’re not going to tolerate attacks by Iran-backed forces on our forces anywhere in the world to include in Syria, and we won’t hesitate to protect ourselves and take additional measures as appropriate,” declared US Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl.

The terrorist attacks on the coalition forces are widely seen as retaliation for earlier air strikes authorized by US President Joe Biden on Tuesday against an ammunition depot and other facilities used by groups affiliated with Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Four F-16 and four F-15Es fighter jets struck nine separate targets in Syria, said the US military. Intelligence officials confirmed to TV7 that the bombardment targeted infrastructure belonging to the Afghan Liwa Fatemiyoun Brigades, which is loyal to the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

In a letter to US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi yesterday, President Joe Biden said he ordered the strikes “consistent with my responsibility to protect United States citizens both at home and abroad and in furtherance of United States national security and foreign policy interests.”

Citing a 15 August incident reportedly involving an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV, drone) attack on a base where coalition and US-backed Syrian opposition fighters are based, the military’s Central Command insisted that the counterstrikes were “proportionate, deliberate action intended to limit the risk of escalation and minimize the risk of casualties.”

“We don’t want Iran to draw the wrong conclusion that they can continue just doing this and get away with it. But part of it was also the nature of the attacks on the 15th. The fact that they were coordinated against two US facilities at the same time, the fact that we believe we have Iran dead to rights on attribution, the UAV parts that we’ve collected, for example, traced directly back to Tehran. So, I think our concern was that this might be an indication that Iran intends to do more of this, and we wanted to disabuse them of any sense that that was a good idea,” Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Dr. Colin Kahl elaborated in Washington about the Tuesday operation.

This was not the first time US took action against Iran-backed proxy groups: warplanes struck operational and weapons storage facilities at two separate sites in Syria and one in Iraq in June 2021.

The strikes come as Washington forms a response to a draft agreement proposed by the European Union (EU) to revive the 2015 Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal with Iran that was abandoned by former President Donald Trump in 2018, which President Biden has sought to restore via indirect negotiations in Austria.

While Iran’s involvement in the UAV attacks on US forces in Syria were corroborated to TV7 by intelligence sources, Tehran cynically continues to demand non-nuclear related concessions at the Vienna Talks vis-à-vis the IRGC – which is believed responsible for funding the country’s drone industry.

It is interesting to note that earlier this month, IDF Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Aviv Kochavi said that a third country was attacked during Israel’s recent Operation Breaking Dawn against the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group in Gaza; which local media said included Iranian bases in Tartous.

Meanwhile last night, Syrian state media accused Israel of conducting several air strikes last night, while claiming to have intercepted several “hostile targets.”

The alleged Israeli Air Force strikes reportedly destroyed military headquarters and posts of Iranian-backed militias as well as their weapons and ammunitions warehouses in the western Hama Province, a Hezbollah ammunition warehouse near the coastal city of Tartous and an arms depot in Masyaf. Additionally, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) opposition group cited local sources as saying a scientific research facility was targeted.

The latest accusations come in the wake of harsh criticism of Jerusalem’s military activities on Damascus’ close ally Moscow.

“We strongly condemned the dangerous practice of Israeli strikes on Syrian territory,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at a joint news conference on Tuesday alongside his Syrian counterpart, Faisal Mekdad.

“We demand that Israel respect the resolutions of the United Nations Security Council and, above all, respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria,” he added.

Moscow is also a key backer of Syrian President Assad and its intervention alongside Iran helped turn the tide in favor of the regime in an over a decade of civil war.

Lavrov’s remarks highlight a rift in once-close relations between the Kremlin and Jerusalem. Bilateral tensions have spiked in recent months over Israel’s condemnation of the Ukraine war, and controversial comments by Moscow’s top diplomat in May claiming that Nazi leader Adolf Hitler had Jewish roots – a statement which triggered outrage in Israel and forced a rare apology from Russian President Vladimir Putin. In addition, the Federation has initiated legal investigation into the closure of the Jewish Agency branch in Russia which promotes emigration to Israel.