ERBIL, Iraq – A barrage of attacks have been carried out on facilities in Iraq and eastern Syria hosting forces from the US-led international coalition against the Islamic State (IS) in recent days in Iraq and Syria, with the coalition firing back on Jan. 5.
Six artillery rounds were shot by coalition forces in Syria at groups explicitly referred to as “Iran-supported malign actors” in a coalition press release.
Though missile and drone defense systems have repeatedly been activated in recent days and forces remain on alert, no major damage to facilities or injuries have been reported among the coalition.
The rocket attacks originating from Syrian government-held territory south of the city of Mayadin on the western banks of the Euphrates River did, however, damage buildings used by civilians including a local mosque east of the river, according to a coalition source.
The area the rockets were targeting is part of the Arab-majority province of Deir al-Zor currently under the US-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
The launch sites are in territory officially under Syrian government control and on the western banks of the river, which in some parts of the province acts as a de facto line of demarcation. However, a large presence of allied Iran-linked armed groups openly speak of operating independently.
According to a Jan. 5 coalition statement, “Coalition forces were targeted this morning by eight rounds of indirect fire at Green Village, a Syrian Democratic Forces base with a small Coalition advisory presence, in northeast Syria. According to Coalition forces, the attack did not cause any casualties, but several rounds impacted inside the Coalition base and caused minor damage.”
It added, “Coalition forces, acting on credible and actionable intelligence, responded swiftly and fired six rounds of artillery towards the point of origin of the attack just outside Mayadin, Syria. The Iran-supported malign actors fired on the Coalition and SDF from within civilian infrastructure with no regard for civilian safety.”
In response to a question by Al-Monitor, a coalition source stressed that this was “the first time the Coalition has referred to ‘Iran-backed’ groups. We normally call them ‘outlaw militia groups.’”
The barrage of attempted attacks in recent days follows the Jan. 3 second anniversary of the killing by US drone strike of Iranian general Qassim Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in Baghdad, for which militias mostly seen as Iran-linked have long vowed revenge.
There were reports of three more rockets being shot at another SDF base in eastern Deir al-Zor hosting US troops after the Jan. 5 counterattack. The base, known as Conoco, is near an oil and gas field and is north of Green Village. One rocket reportedly hit the perimeter of the base but the others missed their target.
Meanwhile, at least three failed drone attacks had been conducted on US forces across the border in Iraq as of Thursday morning. The latest was apparently downed by a Coyote exploding drone, created to act as defense against other unmanned air vehicles near the Ain al-Asad base in the large Sunni-dominant Anbar province.
There are currently an estimated around 2,500 US troops in Iraq and fewer than 1,000 in Syria.
The town of Qaim on the border with Syria has a large presence of Iran-linked armed groups since it was liberated from the IS in late 2017. Iraq officially declared IS defeated in December 2017 but attacks by IS cells and operations against them continue.
The Ain al-Asad base was targeted early on January 8, 2020 by at least a dozen Iranian missiles, though some sources have said over 20 were fired at the base. Though many US troops were found to have sustained traumatic brain injuries, none were killed.
In November of this year, a commander of Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada, an armed group linked to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, called for recruits to fight any US forces remaining in Iraq after the Dec. 31 deadline for the country’s ‘combat mission’ to end.
Many do not see a significant difference between US military advisors and combat troops.
Coalition spokesman Lt Col. Joel Harper told Al-Monitor, “In Iraq, we no longer operate at the tactical level. We advise, assist, and enable at a high level with our ISF [Iraqi Security Forces] and Peshmerga allies. In Syria, as you can see, we still conduct partnered operations, led by the SDF”, stressing that in Iraq “the Coalition advises, assists, and enables to maintain the enduring defeat” of IS in the country.
“There were no Coalition strikes other than the defensive ones against positions in the vicinity of Green Village,” he added in relation to this week’s counterattacks, denying alleged attacks on other areas with a presence of Iran-linked militias including in Hatla near the regional capital of Deir al-Zor, some 50 kilometers north of the area where the launch sites used by the Iran-backed groups were targeted.
A supporter of the Iran-backed Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary forces holds a picture of (L to R) slain Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi paramilitary commander Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis during a demonstration outside the entrance to the Iraqi capital Baghdad's highly-fortified Green Zone on Nov. 7, 2020.