The United States and Iran-backed armed groups in the Middle East are increasingly trading fire in Syria since Israel launched its brutal military assault on the Gaza Strip on October 7.
US bases in Syria and neighbouring Iraq have been attacked multiple times, raising fears of regional escalation as Iran has warned against the mounting death toll in Gaza. More than 11,000 Palestinians have been killed in nearly 40 days of non-stop Israeli bombing.
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So, what’s the latest with the attacks, how closely tied are they to what’s happening in Gaza, and how could this escalate?
How big are the strikes?
Iran-backed groups have attacked US forces in Syria and Iraq more than 50 times since the start of the Gaza war, with several attacks coming this week, according to US military officials.
The attacks, involving rockets, missiles and drones, have inflicted minor damage and have not killed any US soldiers.
Washington has warned that the attacks must stop. It has also launched retaliatory strikes, the latest of which came late on Sunday against two purportedly Iran-linked sites in Syria. One hit a training facility near Abu Kamal, with another targeting a safe house near Mayadin, both located in eastern Syria.
The Pentagon did not provide any details on the damage caused by the strikes, but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a London-based monitoring group, said eight members of Iran-backed militias were killed in the attacks. Al Jazeera however could not independently verify the figure.
US officials said last week at least 56 US personnel have been injured in attacks in Syria and Iraq that started on October 17. Injuries ranged from minor wounds to traumatic brain injuries, but the Pentagon said all had been treated and they returned to work.
Are attacks directly linked to Israel’s war on Gaza?
US officials have tried to emphasise that Pentagon strikes against the Iran-backed groups are not directly connected with the Gaza war. They say US strikes are rather acts of “self-defence” that have not been carried out in coordination with Israel.
The attacks by regional armed groups have only intensified in recent years, particularly following the 2020 US assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in Iraq, where Tehran-backed militias hold sway. The US has been retaliating against those strikes.
Israel, the US’s closest ally in the region, has carried out numerous attacks on Syrian soil as well and has hit airports in Damascus and Aleppo multiple times since October as it seeks to limit the risk posed by Iran-backed forces in Syria.
Iran has been repeatedly warning since the start of the war in Gaza that “new fronts” will be opened if Tel Aviv refuses to stop bombing civilians in the besieged strip, and the “resistance axis” – regional political and armed groups allied with Tehran – forces may strike.
Lebanon’s Hezbollah has already been engaged in border fighting with Israeli forces for more than a month, while Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen have launched multiple rounds of strikes on southern Israel.
The US has attributed their attacks directly to Iran, but Tehran maintains members of the axis act autonomously while sharing the goal of countering US hegemony in the region.
Hamidreza Azizi, a fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), said the attacks by Iran-backed groups are part of the response of the axis to the war in Gaza.
“As senior Iranian officials have repeatedly stated, the Islamic Republic believes that Washington’s support is the main factor enabling Israel to continue and expand its military operations in Gaza with impunity,” he told Al Jazeera.
“In this way, it seems that Iran and its allies are trying to force the Biden administration to reconsider its approach to the war in Gaza by increasing costs for the United States, and indirectly pressuring Israel to stop its attacks.”
He added that this also highlights Iran and its allies’ concerns over a considerable increase in US military presence in the region over the past month, which includes new carrier strike groups, a nuclear submarine, and troops.
Where does Syria stand on this?
Iran has considerable influence in Iraq and Syria and is a main backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who brutally quashed an opposition-led armed rebellion that erupted following peaceful protests in 2011.
In the chaos of the war, the US forces entered northeast Syria apparently in support of its Kurdish allies who fought against al-Assad. The Syrian government has repeatedly called for the “occupation forces” of the US to withdraw from the country, halt their attacks on Syrian soil, and stop “looting” its resources, including oil.
Washington maintains its forces are there to stop a resurgence of the ISIL (ISIS) armed group that took over large swaths of Syria and Iraq but was eventually defeated by an international coalition. The Kurdish forces backed by the US have been spearheading the anti-ISIL operation in Syria.
Like most Arab leaders across the region, al-Assad has expressed his serious opposition to the war in Gaza, denouncing Israel’s strikes. Al-Assad’s regional isolation only ended earlier this year.
Saudi Arabia on Saturday hosted a major Arab-Islamic summit in Riyadh, where the Syrian president was also a speaker. He lambasted the “vicious circle” of allowing Israel to commit massacres and then being content with allowing limited humanitarian aid instead of protecting Palestinians.
“A right cannot be restored when the criminal has become a judge and the thief has become a referee,” he said, referring to the role of Western countries in the Israeli bombing campaign of Gaza.
How could things escalate?
So far, the attacks on US forces in Syria have not caused serious damage. The only casualty the US forces have suffered was reported in Iraq. The Pentagon confirmed last month that a US contractor died of a heart attack while taking cover during an attack on a US base in Iraq’s western al-Anbar governorate.
SWP’s Azizi said the fact that there have been no reported casualties among US soldiers fits within Iran’s calculated strategy.
“If American soldiers and personnel were killed, the United States would likely respond in a very serious manner, and we would witness a significant escalation. In turn, the US responses so far have been limited to targeting logistical centres and weapon depots used by Iran and its allies, avoiding human casualties. Thus, it is clear that both sides are adhering to some kind of unwritten rules of engagement,” he said.
But this does create a risk of miscalculation on either side.
“For example, if American soldiers are killed in one of those attacks, the United States will definitely be forced to respond equally or even more severely. One should not forget that the Biden administration is already being criticized for what is seen as its weakness vis-a-vis Iran.”