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Iran-linked attacks on US forces in Syria rekindle Iraq border concerns

Tit-for-tat attacks by US and Iran-linked forces in eastern Syria have raised regional tension levels and questions about Iraq’s control of its western border and an area long controlled by Kataib Hezbollah in the center of the country.

BAGHDAD — The stepped-up targeting of bases in eastern Syria by Iran-linked militias consisting mainly of Iraqi nationals has raised alarms once again about the country’s borders.

Continuing cross-border movement of men and weapons by Iraqi armed groups linked to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has long been of concern but relatively little has been done to stop it for various political reasons. 

An Aug. 24 press release from US Central Command stated, “US forces responded today to rocket attacks at two sites in Syria, destroying three vehicles and equipment used to launch some of the rockets.”

The attacks, it noted, had begun “at approximately 7:20 p.m. local time in Syria when several rockets landed inside the perimeter of Mission Support Site Conoco in northeast Syria. Shortly after, additional rockets landed in the vicinity of Mission Support Site Green Village.”

It added that “two or three suspected Iran-backed militants conducting one of the attacks were killed,” while three US servicemen sustained minor injuries during the attacks.

Green Village is a military base established to protect the Omar oil field under the control of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The other military base protects the Conoco natural gas fields, also in Deir ez-Zor province. Both host US-led coalition forces and have been subjected to repeated attacks in recent years from the western side of the Euphrates River under the control of Syrian government forces and their allies, mainly IRGC-led forces.

IRGC-linked Iraqi fighters make up the bulk of these Shiite factions allied with the government under Bashar al-Assad, though there are also Afghans and others.

The bases are located on the eastern side of the Euphrates in the Syrian Arab province of Deir ez-Zor and were taken from IS in late 2017 by the Kurdish-led SDF with coalition air support. Many local Arabs took part in the fighting, including former officers from the area that had initially defected to the opposition but returned to their home area to fight IS.

A local source from and currently in Deir ez-Zor province contacted by Al-Monitor said that the attacks on the SDF bases had originated from the areas of “Al-Quriya, Ain Ali and the al-Rahba Castle,” near the city of al-Mayadeen on the western side of the Euphrates.

The source also claimed that Arab locals had notified SDF officials of the impending attack two days before it had happened, having been tipped off by locals on the other side of the river. Many people in this area have relatives and close members of the same tribe on both side of the Euphrates.

According to a press release the following day, over a 24-hour period and in response to the rocket attacks, “CENTCOM forces struck at Iran-affiliated militants in the area with AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, AC-130 gunships and M777 artillery, resulting in four enemy fighters killed and seven enemy rocket launchers destroyed.”

A source in Deir ez-Zor told Al-Monitor that military facilities in Hejin — further south, but also in SDF-controlled Deir ez-Zor — had also been targeted early on Aug. 26 by four rockets but that no one had been injured. He said that this attack had originated from the western banks of the Euphrates.

The recent attacks have also spotlighted the prolonged occupation of an area in a province closer to the Iraqi capital that many believe is used for unauthorized weapons production and other unregulated activities.

An Aug. 24 tweet by the US-led coalition against the Islamic State on an Aug. 15 attack on a base hosting coalition forces south of Deir ez-Zor but also in eastern Syria along the Iraqi border stated, “Iranian-aligned militia groups launched two Iranian manufactured KAS04 unmanned aerial vehicles from Babil Province, Iraq” that “impacted in the vicinity of coalition forces at al-Tanf garrison, Syria” was later deleted without explanation.

In relation to Iraq’s Babil province as the origin of this earlier attack, an Aug. 25 policy analysis by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Michael Knights noted, “Mention of this province is significant because it is often shorthand in US circles for the Jurf al-Sakhar complex operated by [Kataib Hezbollah, or KH], a US-designated terrorist group. Jurf al-Sakhar is a closed-off military zone where KH denies full access even to federal Iraqi government personnel. On March 13, 2020, the area was peppered with US airstrikes that damaged a range of manufacturing, storage, and testing facilities for KH munitions.”

The original residents of the Sunni-majority Jurf al-Sakr and the surrounding area have not been allowed to return despite it having been cleared of IS in late 2014. The town was officially renamed Jurf al-Nasr after it was taken from IS by Iran-linked armed groups.

Three brigades of KH fighters have been incorporated into the government-salaried Popular Mobilization Units. Notably, these brigades are deployed in Jurf al-Sakr and along the Iraqi border with Syria near the city of Qaim.

Al-Monitor has previously been told by Qaim residents that the head of the PMU for this part of Anbar, Qassim Musleh, answers to KH. The area south of Qaim is where much of the illegal movement of armed men is alleged to occur.

The attacks in recent days across the border in Syria have targeted both SDF bases hosting coalition forces in the Arab province of Deir ez-Zor as well as the Tanf garrison held by the US-backed Syrian opposition forces Maghawir al-Thawra further south.

The two areas are not connected and the forces supported by the coalition in the two areas do not collaborate. They are separated by an area of the border widely believed to be controlled by Iran-linked Iraqi armed groups, though officially under the control of Iraqi government forces. Journalists are normally not given access to this area.

Meanwhile, unrest continues in the Iraqi capital, with no new government over 10 months since the last elections and rival Shiite factions conducting thus far peaceful protests.

The political coalition known as the Coordination Framework includes multiple parties with armed factions close to Iran that have fought in Syria on the side of the Syrian government forces. The leader of the rival Shiite forces, Muqtada Sadr, has instead long spoken out against Iraqis fighting in wars beyond the country’s borders.

Sadr has more support, especially among the poorer parts of the population, and influence in the capital, where he has shown that he can call up hundreds of thousands at short notice to protest, and the armed faction known as Saraya Salam answers to him. However, Iran-linked factions have consolidated their control over some areas of the country and seem unlikely to relinquish them without a fight.

Though the government under Mustafa al-Kadhimi — who took office in May 2020 after massive protests brought down the previous government in late 2019 — has made attempts to curb the power of non-state armed forces in the country, destabilization risks seem for the moment likely to deter major efforts to crack down on these groups that continue to cross the border into eastern Syria.

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