Photo by DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images
- US forces in the Middle East routinely trade fire with Iran-backed militias.
- It’s part of a years-long cycle of violence involving multiple actors who all know the limits.
- Experts told Insider that the risk of escalation is low, but miscalculations can happen and have.
Another round of violence in the Middle East recently bloodied US troops, killed an American, and left local militia fighters dead. This bloodshed is part of a years-long cycle of violence in the region that has killed scores of people and tends to keep everyone involved on edge.
An American contractor was killed and several US troops were injured in late March when a suspected Iranian drone struck a base in Syria. The incident prompted the US to carry out a series of deadly strikes against Iran-backed militias, who then responded by carrying out a few more attacks against coalition bases in Syria.
Several experts told Insider that despite regular exchanges of fire like this, the risk of escalation is relatively low right now because the US and Iran know there’s a limit as to how far they can go. Both sides have their own strategic interests, and neither wants to trigger an all-out confrontation. But even still, miscalculation is possible, and these deadly exchanges nearly sent the US and Iran to war just a few years ago.
“The Biden administration is very, very clear in not wanting to escalate or rock the boat,” said Dareen Khalifa, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group. “And the other side also doesn’t want to poke the bear.”
The most recent confrontation began on March 23 when a one-way explosive drone hit a coalition base near Hasakah in northeast Syria, killing a US contractor and wounding five service members and an additional contractor. The intelligence community suspected that the drone was Iranian in origin.
In response, two US Air Force F-15E fighter jets carried out airstrikes later that evening against IRGC Quds Force facilities in Syria, killing eight Iran-backed militants. The Quds Force is a branch of the IRGC — or Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — which itself is a branch of Iran’s military, though it has a tendency to work closely with regional militias.
Iran-backed militias then retaliated against the strikes by carrying out more attacks the next day against coalition bases in Syria, called the Green Village and Mission Support Site Conoco, wounding several more US troops.
US soldiers take part in an unmanned aerial system exercise at Erbil Air Base in Iraq on April 24, 2020.
US Army/Spc. Angel Ruszkiewicz
“We do not seek conflict with Iran, we don’t seek escalation with Iran,” Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters at a March 24 briefing. When asked if Iran was responsible for killing the American contractor, he said that because Tehran backs the militant groups, it “has a responsibility to ensure that they are not contributing to insecurity and instability, but clearly they continue to do that.”
Attacking the US is ‘low-hanging fruit’
This deadly exchanges between the US and Iran-backed militias in late March are nothing new, and sparks of violence between sides are a regular thing that’s been happening for years. Since January 21, 2021, when President Joe Biden took office, Tehran’s proxies have carried out 83 attacks against US service members in Iraq and Syria, a US Central Command (CENTCOM) spokesperson told Insider this month. “We hold Iran accountable for these attacks,” they said.
“In response to a pattern of Iranian and Iran-backed attacks against US personnel and facilities in Iraq and Syria and the continuing threat of future such attacks, the United States has taken, and as necessary, will continue to take military action against the IRGC and its affiliates,” Ryder, the Pentagon spokesperson, said on March 30.
The years-long pattern of violence features trends and upticks that span presidential administrations, and sometimes work in a cyclical way. It also involves a shadowy conflict between Israel, a key US ally, and its regional foe Iran.
US troops patrol the countryside of the Kurdish-majority city of Qamishli in Syria’s northeastern Hasakeh province, April 20, 2022.
DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images
Russia, which is currently waging war in Ukraine, controls much of the airspace above Syria. There, it allows neighboring Israel to carry out strikes against Iran-backed assets and target weapons shipments bound for Tehran’s proxy groups like Hezbollah, which is based in Lebanon. Lacking the capabilities to attack Israel and in an attempt to avoid major escalation, Iran-backed fighters respond by targeting US forces in Iraq and Syria instead.
“The trend has been very clear,” said Alex Vatanka, the director of the Iran program at the Middle East Institute. “As soon as the Iranian special forces and their proxies showed up in Syria, the Israelis started hitting them. And the Israelis made all sorts of deals to hit the Iranians and get away with it.”
Khalifa, the International Crisis Group analyst who works on security and governance in Syria, said it’s often the case that when there’s an uptick in Israeli attacks against Iranian assets in Syria, for example, this leads to an uptick in Iranian attacks on US positions in the country. She referred to the strategy to attack the US as chasing “low-hanging fruit.”
Israel carried out several strikes against positions in Syria last month, including a March 22 airstrike near an airport in Aleppo. The next day, Iran-backed militias attacked US forces near Hasakah, killing the American contractor.
Vehicles drive along al-Firdous square in Baghdad on March 9, 2023 with a prominent billboard showing the slain head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)’s “Quds Force” Qasem Soleimani (2nd-R) and the Iraqi Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation) forces commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (2nd-L) with a figure wearing green and others looking towards the Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem.
Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images
“Iran always feels that it’s easier to retaliate against the US than it is against Israel,” said Ali Vaez, the Crisis Group’s Iran project director. Retaliation against Israel, he said, “is not something that they are capable of doing, and the US is much more exposed in Iraq and Syria.”
‘Systematically contained violence’
The complex series of relationships is not the only motivating factor for Iran.
Iran-backed engagements with US forces in Iraq and Syria are also motivated by a desire to inflict discomfort on the small American presence in both countries. From a strategic standpoint on the Iranian side, they see the attacks as a way to signal to the US that they can be a destabilizing force and make life difficult for Washington’s troops, Khalifa said.
These tit-for-tat exchanges between the US and Iran have existed for decades, Vatanka said. Both he and Vaez noted that it’s a clear Iranian policy to try and gradually push US forces out of the region — a desire of Tehran’s that only deepened after the 2020 assassination of Qassem Soleimani, who was the Quds Force commander.
“Iranians understand that getting the US out of Iraq and Syria is a relatively low bar and pretty significant achievement for them,” Vaez said.
But there’s a limit as to how far each side is willing to go when they confront each other, because nobody wants to get entangled in a full-scale war. Khalifa said that what’s happening in Syria, for example, has been “systematically contained” because it’s clear to all parties how much they can get away with and generally where the red lines are.
Iranian women walk next to Zolfaghar-Basir and Dezful (R) missiles displayed at Mosallah mosque on the occasion of second anniversary of an Iran missile attack at a US military base in Iraq following the assassination of a former top Iranian commander, in Tehran, on January 7, 2022.
Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images
Both Iran and the US are “much more aware of their limitations” and lack any “desire to sort of go out for a head-on confrontation,” Vatanka said. War would be catastrophic for Iran, and it would be a major distraction for the US as it deals with major powers like China and Russia. “And that’s why you have the cautious approach and sort of willingness to sometimes meet each other halfway, or certainly stay away from all-out shooting war, because neither side sees that to be their interests,” he noted.
Vatanka said that while heated engagements between the US and Iran-backed militias might see escalation every now and then, unless there’s a “political change of heart” in Washington or in Tehran to “take the gloves off, and I don’t see any signs of that, then this is more or less what we’ve seen for years now” in Syria and Iraq.
Although the likelihood of an all-out war between Washington and Tehran seems relatively low at the moment, the exchange of rockets and airstrikes still comes with a risk of grave miscalculation.
Tensions skyrocketed after Soleimani’s assassination — which followed a deadly exchange between US and Iran-backed forces — and nearly sent Washington and Tehran to war as the latter lobbed ballistic missiles at US positions in Iraq, injuring dozens of American service members and heated rhetoric intensified. Cooler heads, however, ultimately prevailed, de-escalating the situation.
“Things could go wrong,” Khalifa. “At least on the Iranian side, it’s not the most precise of strikes. There is room for miscalculation, and there is room for things going off plan.” Still, she said, it’s quite unlikely that either party would escalate to the point that ignites a full-blown conflict.