FOREIGN POLICY, APRIL 16, 2018-- With the Islamic State in retreat and anti-regime rebels losing ground, Iranian-backed armed groups in Syria are turning the focus of their militancy to U.S. troops on the ground.
Western military officials and independent analysts have long said it was only a matter of time before U.S. forces on the ground in Syria were targeted by militias. Now, this weekend’s U.S.-led airstrikes on alleged chemical weapons installations could hasten such attacks.
The militias have “always had this anti-American tone, but when you have one threat after another, you see they’re trying to send a specific message,” says Phillip Smyth, a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who has been tracking Iranian-backed militias in Syria.
This month, the Baqir Brigade, one of a number of Iranian-backed militias operating in Syria, announced on its Facebook page that it would begin attacks on U.S. military personnel.
“We in the Baqir Brigade leadership announce the good news of the launch of military and jihadi operations against the U.S. occupier and all those affiliated with it in Syria,” the militia said in an April 6 statement that was carried by multiple media outlets the following day. (Facebook appears to have shut down the page shortly afterward.)
In a report published last week, Smyth chronicled increasing militia hostility toward U.S. forces in northern Syria that goes beyond the normal invective. He noted that the Baqir Brigade declaration went beyond a statement to a call for jihad, or religiously sanctioned holy war. “The group itself cannot declare jihad — it has to come from their Iranian higher-ups,” he says.
The Baqir Brigade declaration was a “huge thing,” says Nawar Oliver, a military analyst at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, a think tank in Istanbul. “The announcement is not a joke. Eventually we might see action.”
The limited airstrikes overnight Friday damaged sites where, Western officials said, chemical weapons were allegedly produced or distributed and then used against civilians in rebel territories, including in the city of Douma on April 7.
Armed groups in Syria with direct or suspected connections to Tehran have become increasingly vocal about their intention to target U.S. forces in Syria, mostly grouped in the country’s north and northeast. Newly emboldened pro-Iranian militias across the region have already shifted their focus from battling the Islamic State toward Washington and its allies.
“After the fight against the Islamic State, now what they say is, ‘We’re No. 1 against America, and everything else is No. 2,’” says Renad Mansour, an Iraqi-based researcher for Chatham House who has spoken with leaders and members of pro-Iranian militias. “In rhetorical terms, they’re making it clear Americans are their enemies. If a conflict heats up between the U.S. and Iran, these guys are the agents on the ground.”
Just hours after the U.S. attack on alleged Syrian chemical sites, hundreds of Iranian-backed militia fighters reportedly surrounded a U.S. air base to the west of Baghdad, defying the orders of commanders in the city, according to the Lebanese newspaper Ad-Diyar. U.S. military officials declined to confirm or deny the incident but cautioned that all Iraqi forces, including militias, must obey the central government. “Coalition forces maintain the right to defend themselves and our Iraqi partners against any threat,” U.S. Army Col. Ryan Dillon said in response to an emailed question about the report.
After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Shiite-led militias organized by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps targeted American forces, using armor-piercing roadside bombs to attack U.S. patrols and firing mortars and missiles into bases. In Syria, U.S. forces confined to far-flung bases with threadbare desert supply lines may be in a particularly vulnerable position.
The U.S. military presence in northern Syria numbers around 2,000 Army, Marine, and special operations forces, alongside smaller numbers of U.K. and French personnel. In addition, at least 5,500 Defense Department contractors, half of them U.S. citizens, are spread throughout Syria and Iraq, according to a report issued by U.S. Central Command this month.
An American and a British soldier were reportedly killed in Syria on March 30, when a roadside bomb struck their vehicle.
“The more the conflict winds down and the insurgency against the Assad regime fades away, the more incentivized Iran and its proxies become to provoke a military confrontation with the US,” says Ranj Alaaldin, a scholar the Brookings Doha Center. “The U.S. can overwhelm them and inflict heavy damages from the air, but the 2,000 U.S. troops stationed in the east are no match for the tens of thousands of proxies Iran has at its disposal.”
The most vociferously anti-American militias tend to be focused on the eastern provinces, where they have been recruiting among pro-Assad Sunni tribes, as well as from Syria’s tiny Shiite minority. Syrian forces under the Assad regime’s direct command appear careful to avoid conflicts with the Americans, but Iranian-backed militias have repeatedly tangled with U.S. forces in the country.
One pro-regime militia, Popular Resistance in the Eastern Region, distributed a video this month claiming to show a mortar attack on a U.S. base in the Syrian town of Ain Issa, north of Raqqa. The group has announced that it will attack both U.S. forces and allied Kurdish militias working with them.
In recent days, Iran’s leadership has also signaled that it’s time to hasten America’s departure from Syria.
Just hours before the United States launched its airstrikes, Ali Akbar Velayati, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s advisor on international affairs, appeared on state television during a visit to Syria. “The Americans are too weak to remain in the east of the Euphrates,” he said.
After the Syrian regime’s victory over rebels in Eastern Ghouta, where the most recent alleged chemical attack took place, Velayati said the Americans will ultimately be forced to leave.
“There is no possibility for them to stay. That is why they consider air attacks,” Velayati said. “But I must say that the trajectory of war is determined on the ground, not in the skies.”
Borzou Daragahi is an Istanbul-based journalist who has covered the Middle East for more than 16 years.
BY BORZOU DARAGAHI