Geopolitical Insights

Academy SITREP – U.S. Airstrikes in Syria Target Iranian-Backed Proxy Forces

October 27, 2023
What has Happened:

  • Earlier this morning, the U.S. conducted two airstrikes against facilities used by Iran’s IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) and its proxies in eastern Syria in retaliation for at least 19 recent rocket and drone attacks against American bases and personnel in the region.
  • A pair of U.S. F-16 fighter jets utilizing precision-guided munitions (and accompanied by MQ-9 drones) targeted weapons and ammunition storage facilities in Abu Kamal near the Syria- Iraq border.
  • Secretary of Defense Austin indicated that these strikes were “narrowly tailored in self-defense” and that “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.”
  • Following the attack on Israel by Hamas on October 7th, the U.S. deployed two Carrier Strike Groups to the eastern Mediterranean and Persian Gulf along with dozens of warplanes to deter escalation from Iran.
  • While the U.S. has struck these proxy groups several times over the past two years in response to attacks on U.S. forces in Syria and Iraq (in February 2021, June 2021, August 2022, and March 2023), as we addressed in our October ATW, there is a risk that the war between Israel and Hamas expands to include other Iranian-backed proxy forces.
  • As Israel continues to “prepare the battlefield” for its land assault into Gaza with overnight raids and more intensive airstrikes, the U.S. is moving additional air defense systems into the region to protect its personnel and is continuing to push for the release of hostages held in Gaza.
Why it Matters:

“In the past, these U.S. strikes have had some effect in the near-term deterrence of Iranian-backed proxies in Syria. U.S. operations will expand as necessary but will remain targeted and surgical in nature to deter strikes against U.S. forces in Syria and Iraq. The U.S. will also stay focused on the Shia highway that sends lethal support from Iran via Syria into Lebanon to Hezbollah and other militant groups. I would assess that our further responses will await any future attacks (i.e., action, reaction, counteraction scenario). Abu Kamal is a known crossing point for logistics support and the basing of Iranian proxies. It was a focal point for cross-border operations in the Iraq war where we engaged foreign fighters coming across the border. I would also imagine that the Department of State has messaged the Arab nations of our intent with the strike (as well as China). It is unlikely that we notified Russia given the current situation. Iran will not be deterred in their support of Shia and Sunni proxies and while the U.S. says that this has nothing to do with Gaza, Iran does not separate the two and sees this as directly related to Israel and U.S. policy. It is hard to tell how the hostage situation and recent reports of as many as 50 dead will impact the timing of the ground campaign. Lots of variables at this point. In many ways the IDF is thinking very tactically and not strategically, which is not a new occurrence in Gaza. U.S. forces are focused on Iranian deterrence. I would expect that our support for the IDF will remain in arms/ammunition, but no direct involvement pending some unforeseen event. I would assess with moderate confidence that Iran will keep this as a proxy conflict for now though they may increase lethal support to sustain those forces. That puts them at a greater risk of both U.S. and IDF strikes. I assess that both the IDF, and U.S. will not look to strike inside Iran proper at this point short of a direct lethal attack coming from Iran.” General Robert Ashley  

“This is complicated and is a balancing act for the U.S., NATO, Israel, and our friends in the Middle East. Russia, Iran, Syria, Lebanese Hezbollah, and Hamas are linked together in this on-going situation. Israel will assault, but that too has become complicated given our request that they delay allowing us to move increased missile defense systems into the region to protect our personnel. Israel’s attack plan is set but is now being impacted by both the concern over hostages and a potential lack of unity in the PM’s Cabinet. The U.S. understands that no response merely opens us up for increasingly aggressive attacks, hence the strike last night on Iranian assets in Syria. The U.S. will continue to respond to strikes/attacks on U.S. personnel. At the same time, we will try to balance U.S. retaliation with the potential for escalation. We are also trying to maintain the delicate balance of sending a strong signal that we will not tolerate attacks without a response (while not stirring up the masses in the region). I think that the threat of civil unrest across the Middle East (sparked by social media outlets) is a critical concern. There is certainly a chance that Iran goes too far.” General Mastin Robeson