Military tensions escalated between US forces and Iranian militia in Syria as nuclear talks between Tehran and Washington seemed to be making some progress.
US attack helicopters destroyed three vehicles of Iranian militia Wednesday evening local time that had fired rockets at American forces in Syria, lightly injuring three servicemen. Three militiamen were also reportedly killed in the US retaliation.
This was the second attack on militia targets in two days, after the United States conducted an air strike Tuesday at suspected sites of militia under Iranian command, who had conducted a rocket attack on August 15 at US forces.
The foreign ministry denied any links with militias in Syria on Wednesday but accused the US of violating Syria's sovereignty and demanded the withdrawal of American forces.
CENTCOM’s issued a statement on the events indicating that Iranian-backed forces had fired multiple salvos of rockets at two sites and their vicinity.
“We are closely monitoring the situation,” said Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla, commander of CENTCOM. “We have a total spectrum of capability to mitigate threats across the region, and we have every confidence in our ability to protect our troops and Coalition partners from attacks.”
CENTCOM added, “The response was proportional and deliberate. The United States does not seek conflict with Iran, but we will continue to take the measures necessary to protect and defend our people.”
One senior defense official told Politico that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) is responsible for and directing the attacks against US targets.
It is not clear why forces under Iranian command in Syria began the military confrontation ten days ago when international talks to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, JCPOA, seemed to be making progress.
It is also not clear why the United States waited eight days to show its first response on August 23. The delay could have been related to the dynamics of the negotiations, or CENTCOM might have seen signs on the ground that more attacks were imminent.
The Iranian behavior, however, signifies a major issue with the current negotiations. The Biden Administration has focused on restoring the JCPOA that its predecessor abandoned, but critics say that Iran’s threat to the region is not just the possibility that it will build nuclear bombs, but its existing conventional and subversive threats that would remain in place even if the JCPOA is restored.
In fact, opponents both in the US, Israel and elsewhere say that a nuclear deal will immediately release tens of billions of dollars in sanctions relief and frozen assets for Tehran, which would become more empowered to bolster its non-nuclear threats to other countries.
“We’re not going to tolerate attacks by Iran-backed forces on our forces anywhere in the world to include in Syria, and we won’t hesitate to protect ourselves and take additional measures as appropriate,” said Colin Kahl, the undersecretary of defense for policy.
While this is a clear warning, Iran has heard many such statements and has continued its periodic attacks against US targets both in Syria and Iraq. Also, the US does not directly respond to attacks by Iranian proxies on its allies in the Middle East, who are mostly left to defend themselves against drone and missile attacks by Houthis from Yemen or Iran-linked groups in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
US forces first deployed into Syria during the Obama administration's campaign against Islamic State. There are about 900 U.S. troops in Syria, most of them in the east.