Since the beginning of the war in Gaza between Hamas and Israel, U.S. bases have come under repeated attacks in Syria and Iraq by Iranian proxies. Thus, the US Treasury Department unveiled a new round of sanctions against Kata’ib Hizballah (KH) and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada (KSS), including KSS leader Hashim Finyan Rahim al-Saraji and five members of KH.
Surge in Attacks Against US Bases in Eastern Syria Linked to Israel-Hamas Conflict
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported a series of 38 attacks on US outposts in eastern Syria, escalating between October 19 and November 17. These strikes, conducted both by land and using drones, primarily targeted American bases located in the oil- and gas-rich eastern province of Deir ez-Zor. The Britain-based Syrian war monitor attributes these assaults to groups retaliating against US support for Israel’s military actions in the ongoing conflict in Gaza.
The majority of these attacks are believed to be orchestrated by the “Islamic Resistance in Iraq,” an Iraqi Shiite militia. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights suggests that these strikes form part of a broader retaliatory campaign against US forces by pro-Iran fighters based in Iraq and Syria.
On the same day, Sham FM, a pro-government Syrian radio station, reported explosions within the al-Omar oil fields in Deir ez-Zor, which house a US military base. Furthermore, a base for Iran-backed fighters in Deir ez-Zpr’s eastern countryside was also targeted, indicating an intensifying confrontation between these fighters and US forces in the region.
Esper says US retaliation strikes against Iranian proxies in Syria not ‘forceful enough’
The military’s responses to attacks carried out by Iranian proxies against U.S. forces in Syria and Iraq have been inadequate, according to former Defense Secretary Mark Esper.
U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria are in the region to ensure the lasting defeat of the Islamic State, but they have come under attack by Iranian proxies more than 60 times in the last month, which has left roughly 60 U.S. troops with injuries, though all of them have returned to duty.
The U.S. military has launched three sets of airstrikes against facilities used by the proxies, but the strikes have not deterred the proxies from continuing their attacks. There have been multiple attacks since the most recent of the U.S. strikes.
“I don’t think that our response has been forceful enough and frequent enough, and because what we’re trying to do is achieve deterrence, and you don’t have deterrence if you strike them and they immediately strike back,” Esper told the Washington Examiner. “My understanding is that [the administration is] concerned about escalation. I think the way you prevent escalation is by responding more forcefully and getting those militias, those proxies, to back down, and I don’t think we’re there yet.”
He urged the United States to carry out more strikes and expand to a “broader array of targets” than only striking ammunition and weapons facilities, though the Pentagon stands by its responses.
“Are we waiting for an attacker to inflict more damage to alter our response? I think you saw our responses, of our last three strikes. One of them hit a command-and-control node that was operating in a safe house, the others have weapons storage facilities, and a training facility,” Pentagon deputy spokeswoman Sabrina Singh said on Thursday. “So, our attacks have significantly downgraded and degraded, I should say, the access that these militia groups have to these weapons, and so we’re not waiting on something to act. We have responded, and if there are more attacks, we will certainly respond at a time and place of our choosing.”
U.S. troops targeted a training facility and a safe house last Sunday, hit a weapons storage facility on Nov. 8, and struck a weapons storage facility and ammunition storage area in Syria on Oct. 26.
US Slaps New Sanctions on Iranian-backed Proxies in Iraq and Syria
In a Friday announcement, the US Treasury Department unveiled a new round of sanctions against Kata’ib Hizballah (KH) and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada (KSS), including KSS leader Hashim Finyan Rahim al-Saraji and five members of KH, according to The Media Line.
Over the past month, US forces in Iraq and Syria, which according to official figures number about 2,500 and 900 respectively, have been subject to escalating attacks from Iran-aligned militia groups.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken reinforced the necessity of the Treasury Department’s move, stating that “the United States remains committed to using all available tools to counter Iran’s support for terrorism and degrade and disrupt the ability of Iran-backed groups to conduct terrorist attacks.”
In the last month, there have been 60 attacks on US forces resulting in 59 injuries. Nonetheless, all affected personnel have recovered and returned to active duty.
This action aims to freeze all assets held by the affected groups and individuals and threatens to levy sanctions on those who engage or seek to engage in financial dealings with the targeted parties.
Hashim Finyan Rahim al-Saraji, also known as Abu Ala al-Walai and KSS’s secretary general, referred to the US sanctions against him as a “badge of honour” in a Telegram message posted on Friday.
These sanctions come at a time of mounting uncertainty and volatility across the Middle East as Israel continues to wage war against Hamas in Gaza. Statements from Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian allude to the claim that direct attacks from KSS and KH will cease when Israel ends its war in Gaza.
US Forces Attacked 151 Times in Iraq, Syria During Biden Presidency
Defense officials told VOA on Friday that Iranian proxies carried out seven attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria between March 29 and October 17.
There have been 61 additional attacks against U.S. forces there since October 17, including attacks at three U.S. bases Friday. A one-way drone attack at Tal Baydar in Syria on Friday damaged infrastructure at the base and wounded one service member, who was evacuated off base but has since returned to duty.
Most of the attacks since October 17 were disrupted by the U.S. military or failed to reach their targets, causing no casualties or damage to infrastructure, according to the military. But a handful of attacks have left more than 60 U.S. military personnel with injuries, ranging from shrapnel wounds to perforated eardrums and traumatic brain injuries. Officials say all of the injured have returned to duty.
One U.S. contractor at al-Asad Air Base in Iraq suffered a cardiac episode and died while sheltering in place during a false alarm for an air attack.
The Middle East has been a tinderbox since Iranian-backed Hamas launched a terrorist attack on Israel on October 7, killing at least 1,200 people while taking about 240 people hostage, Israel says. Israel’s retaliatory strikes and ground offensive have killed more than 12,000 Palestinians — about 5,000 of them children — according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry.
But former and current officials say that the situation in Gaza is not the driving cause of the attacks on U.S. forces.