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Syria Today – Tense Situation for U.S. Forces; Strikes Kill Civilians in Idleb

Your daily brief of the English-speaking press on Syria.

In the wake of U.S. fighter jets striking facilities utilized by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and its allies in Syria on Friday, retaliation swiftly followed. Proxies responded by deploying an attack drone against U.S. forces in western Iraq. Meanwhile, the toll on civilians has reached a devastating number, with 65 lives lost in Idleb and neighbouring cities due to actions by government forces and Russia this month.

Iran’s Proxies Fire Back After U.S. Airstrikes

Just hours after U.S. fighter jets bombed facilities used by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and its proxies in Syria early Friday, the proxies fired back — launching an attack drone at U.S. forces in western Iraq, The New York Times reports.

American air defenses shot down the drone a few miles from Al Asad Air Base, causing no injuries or damage on the ground, U.S. officials said on Friday. Pentagon officials also said that rockets were fired into northern Syria on Friday but landed far from American troops.

Pentagon officials have attributed the attacks to Iran-backed militias.

But the tit-for-tat raised questions about whether the airstrikes that were carried out after a flurry of rocket and drone attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria can achieve one of their major goals: to deter further attacks.

“The United States does not seek conflict and has no intention nor desire to engage in further hostilities, but these Iranian-backed attacks against U.S. forces are unacceptable and must stop,” Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said in a statement after what he described as “self-defence” strikes.

The airstrikes conducted by two Air Force F-16s and one F-15E were calibrated to send a strong message to Iran but not so strong as to escalate the hostilities, U.S. officials said. The targets were arms and ammunition storage buildings that supplied the Iran-backed militias involved in the recent attacks against Americans, Pentagon officials said.

“This was our way of saying ‘cut it out,’ but no more than that,” said Charles Lister of the Middle East Institute in Washington. “The Iranians won’t be deterred, of course, so this will likely prove to be the first step in several attempts to reinforce deterrence.”

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Since Hamas’s surprise attack against Israel on Oct. 7, President Biden and his aides have sought to prevent the war between Israel and Hamas from spilling over into a regional conflict with Iran and its proxies in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. The Pentagon has rushed two aircraft carriers and dozens of extra warplanes to the region to make this point.

But with the near-daily attacks against U.S. forces over the past 10 days — the Pentagon’s tally climbed to at least 20 by late Friday — pressure had been mounting for a military response.

Republican critics and some air power advocates said on Friday that the U.S. retaliatory strikes were important but not enough to deter Iran and its proxies.

“They demonstrate that we won’t just take incoming attacks without a response, but they were not, and are not, sufficient to deter additional future attacks,” said David A. Deptula, a retired three-star Air Force general and the dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas and a member of the Armed Services Committee, said the U.S. retaliation, especially on unoccupied proxy warehouses, “merely validates Iran’s strategy to use proxies to attack Americans.”

“They are laughing at us in Tehran,” he added.

Biden administration officials say a similar spate of attacks involving Iran-backed militias and retaliatory American airstrikes in March eventually led to an uneasy six-month hiatus of rocket and drone attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria until the recent strikes.

A U.S. official said on Friday that the Biden administration did not believe that the Iranian government wanted a war with the United States. Iran, the official said, is believed to be wary of the Shiite militias taking the attacks so far that they drag Washington and Tehran into direct conflict.

UN envoy says the Israel-Hamas war is spilling into Syria, adding to growing instability there

The Israel-Hamas war is spilling into Syria, fueled by growing instability, violence and a lack of progress toward a political solution to its 12-year conflict, the United Nations special envoy for the country said Monday.

Geir Pedersen told the Security Council that, on top of violence from the Syrian conflict, the Syrian people now face “a terrifying prospect of a potential wider escalation” following Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks on Israel and the ongoing retaliatory military action.

“Spillover into Syria is not just a risk; it has already begun,” the U.N. envoy for Syria said.

Pedersen pointed to airstrikes attributed to Israel hitting Syria’s airports in Aleppo and Damascus several times, and retaliation by the United States against what it said were multiple attacks on its forces “by groups that it claims are backed by Iran, including on Syrian territory.”

Northwest Syria witnesses most intense military escalation in three years

More than 65 civilians have been killed in Idleb and nearby cities by government forces and Russia so far this month, Al-Jazeera reported.

A nurse was killed and a doctor and driver were seriously injured on Monday as a result of a guided rocket attack by Syrian regime forces on a car carrying a medical team on a road connecting Benish and Taftanaz in the Idlib countryside.

Since the beginning of October, cities and towns in northwestern Syria have witnessed a military escalation by Syrian government forces and Russia, the most intense in nearly three years. Over 65 civilians, including more than 20 children and 10 women, have been killed and more than 265 civilians, including 80 children and 45 women, have been injured, according to a Syrian volunteer emergency rescue group.

The Syria Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets said on Saturday that the aerial and artillery attacks carried out in the region by Russia and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad involved the use of internationally prohibited incendiary and cluster weapons.

“Our teams responded to over 250 attacks on 70 cities and towns in northwestern Syria until October 28th,” said Ahmed Yazji, a board member of Syria Civil Defense.

Yazji told Al Jazeera that the attacks focused on residential neighbourhoods and public facilities and targeted four civil defence centers, 13 schools, seven hospitals and medical centers, five displacement camps, and five popular markets.

“This serious escalation threatens the lives of civilians, imposes a state of instability, and creates a new wave of displacement, further deepening the long-standing tragedy of more than 12 years, undermining the education process, and the livelihoods and recovery of communities that have not yet recovered from the devastating earthquake that struck the region on February 6th of this year,” Yazji added.

New displacement

The attacks by the Syrian government and its ally Russia have resulted in a new wave of displacement for residents in the areas under attack, including the cities of Idlib, Ariha, Jisr al-Shughour, Sarmin, and Darat Izza, as well as towns in Jabal Zawiya and western Idleb.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that northwest Syria is home to 4.5 million people, including 1.9 million living in camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs).

OCHA also reported that the recent escalation in northwest Syria has displaced more than 12,000 civilians from their cities and villages to makeshift reception centers.

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