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Will Iran-linked attacks force US troops out of Syria?

Will Iran-linked attacks force US troops out of Syria?
5 min read
17 November, 2023
Analysis: A recent wave of attacks against US forces in Syria by Iran-backed militias aim to raise the cost of their presence in the country while expressing dissatisfaction with Washington's support for Israel's war on Gaza.

As Israel intensifies its fighting in Gaza and on its northern border with Lebanon's Hezbollah, US forces have faced over 50 attacks from Iranian-linked militias in Syria over the past month.

The attacks have injured at least 56 US soldiers, according to a statement by the Pentagon last week.

The strikes have been disavowed by Tehran and Hezbollah, with both parties insisting that each element of the so-called "resistance axis", which includes Iranian allies across the region, acts autonomously.

The US has struck back at the offending militias in Syria, with two strikes in eastern Syria killing eight members of Iranian-backed groups on Sunday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR).

The New Arab (TNA) could not independently confirm these figures. The US strikes, meant to deter further Iranian-linked activity, prompted a volley of retaliatory attacks from militias in Syria.

The US maintains about 900 troops in Syria as part of its mission to fight against the remnants of the so-called Islamic State (IS), most of which are stationed alongside the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria.

Analysts have said that these attacks are aimed at raising the cost of US troop presence in Syria, as well as expressing dissatisfaction with US support for Israel’s war on Gaza.

"The apparent aim of these attacks … is to pressure the Americans to force a ceasefire in Gaza," Sam Heller, a fellow with the Century Foundation, told TNA.

The attacks in Syria come as members of the resistance axis launch attacks against US forces and Israel across the region. The Houthis in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon have launched missiles towards Israel, while US forces have faced attacks in both Iraq and Syria.

However, it is unclear the degree to which all of these forces are coordinating with one another, particularly in Syria, where the attacks have been claimed by the 'Islamic Resistance in Iraq'.

"These are Iraqi militants capacitated by Iran, and to some degree, they are responsive to Iranian direction. But I don’t think they necessarily need an Iranian go-ahead to fire on Americans," Heller explained.

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Notably, during Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah’s first speech since the war in Gaza started, Nasrallah thanked each of the members of the resistance axis for their attacks on Israel – besides those in Syria.

Still, while there are doubts about whether or not militias in Iraq are explicitly taking directions from Tehran, the regional concert of resistance-aligned attacks leads others to believe Iran is playing a close role in coordination.

"The Iraq militias I know have their agenda and at times have hit us against Iran’s ‘advice’. But at present, particularly in Syria, you can assume strikes on us are closely coordinated by Iran," James Jeffrey, the former US Special Envoy to Syria, told TNA.

Jeffrey further explained that the attacks are coming as Hamas suffers losses in Gaza, so Iranian proxies "have to do at least carefully calibrated strikes".

The US has had troops in Syria since 2015 as part of its fight against Islamic State remnants in the country. [Getty]
Can the strikes evict the US from Syria?

US troops have been present in Syria since 2015. The amount of US troops has been minimal and they are mostly present in an advisory, support capacity to the SDF in the northeast and the Syrian Free Army in the southeast of the country.

The small numbers of US troops deployed in Syria and the low level of casualties have allowed the US to maintain a presence in the area without committing a large amount of resources to doing so.

Iranian-linked militias have in recent years been ramping up pressure against these forces in Syria, with infrequent drone strikes on US bases. The recent spate of attacks has vastly increased the tempo of these operations, further pressing on US troops in Syria.

Still, despite the escalating attacks, there is little indication that the US is prepared to exit Syria, "even under this kind of fire," Heller explained.

"I don’t think all US forces in Syria are equally threatened by these attacks. US positions in Deir az-Zour and southern al-Hasakeh are likely in more jeopardy than US facilities further north. The latter may be easier to sustain safely," Heller said.

The fact that the attacks are happening in a charged regional context, in addition to the fact that the US is heading into an election year, could also lead the current US administration to harden its stance against the Iranian-linked factions.

Instead of withdrawing troops, the attacks could provide a window for the US to clarify its strategy moving forward in Syria, which is currently limited to open-ended support for the SDF and sanctions against the Assad regime.

"What the attacks should generate is for the US to articulate a Syria policy, including the troop presence, that articulates continuing strategic purpose, beginning with containing Iran and Russia and maintaining a Syrian ceasefire," Jeffrey said.

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In the short term, the US has said that it will use military force to deter further attacks from militias in Syria.

Based on the immediate retaliatory strikes by the militias hit by the US on Sunday, however, it seems likely that attacks on US personnel will continue for the foreseeable future.

"I’m very sceptical that the US can deter these groups through this kind of coercion. I think it makes sense to focus on de-escalation in Gaza, which seems like the key to mitigating these attacks and other violence regionally," Heller said.

William Christou is The New Arab’s correspondent in Beirut, covering the politics of the Levant and Mediterranean. Previously he worked for Al Jazeera in Doha and Syria Direct in Amman.

Follow him on Twitter: @Will_Christou