American airstrikes on Syria sheer overkill - GulfToday

American airstrikes on Syria sheer overkill

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


A view of the city after airstrikes by the US bombers.

“America is back. America is back!” proclaims US President Joe Biden. Indeed, America is back, back bombing eastern Syria. Bombing pro-Iranian militias which Biden accuses of mounting strikes on Iraqi bases housing US forces and on Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone where the US embassy is located. However, the militiamen targeted were far from the sites of the attacks and were not involved. Biden chose to hit them in Syria because to bomb them in Iraq would ruffle Iraqi feathers. Syria has become a shooting gallery for US leaders seeking to demonstrate that they are prepared to be tough with those they deem enemies.

The first airstrikes in Biden’s presidency are likely to ramp up rather than de-escalate tensions between Washington and Tehran at a time of rising friction due to the uncertainty of the US return to the 2015 agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for lifting sanctions. Biden has repeatedly given the impression this would be a priority once he took office but he is wavering, creating new problems, and delaying.

US spokesmen say Biden’s strikes were intended to send a message to Tehran to curb Iraqi Shia militias which have mounted numerous rocket salvos on sites hosting US military and civilian personnel. The US has blamed Kataeb Hizbullah and has retaliated with aerial bombings on Iraqi soil.

US fighter jets dropped seven 250-kilogramme bunker-busting bombs on seven targets near the town of Boukamal in eastern Syria on the border with Iraq. One Kataeb Hizbullah or Kataeb Sayyid al-Shuhada fighter was reported killed although the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claim the death toll was 17. Televised images of the damage inflicted by the raid reveal that the targets were flimsy prefabricated barracks or shelters with metal sheet roofing rather than solid military objectives.

The strikes were the usual US overkill accompanied by media hype. The raid was ordered to counter US critics who claim Biden is “soft on Iran” because he has repeatedly stated his intention to return to the Iran nuclear deal. Biden does not need to impress Iran with US military might. Iran knows full well what the US can do with bombs, rockets, and drones. Tehran does not need reminders.

The Biden administration and the Pentagon operate on the supposition that the militias operate solely at Iran’s command. However, they belong to the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), a coalition of 40 mainly Shia militias formed in 2014 to battle Daesh alongside the Iraqi army and US-led coaltion forces. The PMU, which can muster 180,000 fighters, has formally merged with the regular Iraqi armed forces.

The militias have both Syrian and Iraqi agendas. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights 15,000 fighters have been deployed in eastern Syria to counter thousands of fugitive Daesh elements which have been attacking the Syrian army and its allies, preying on local communities, and crossing into Iraq. The militiamen are also imposing security in areas where they are based while Iran has opened schools and clinics in the region to win “hearts and minds.” By contrast, US is making no effort to court Syrians living in the vast eastern region held by its Kurdish allies in the Syrian Democratic Forces militia. Kurdish rule us resented by local Arab communities.

The militias also seek an end to the US military presence in Iraq. They have a grudge against the US for the Trump administration’s assassination in January 2020 of PMU commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis along with Iran’s Quds forces chief Qassim Soleimani. By attacking sites sheltering US forces, the militias have put pressure on the US to pull out and on Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi to order full US withdrawal from Iraq in line with an Iraqi national assembly vote following the killings.

The US attack undermines Kadhimi’s efforts to assert control over the militias which have had a free hand to operate since they are connected to and have the backing of powerful politicians and parliamentary parties.

Iraqis who have been protesting in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities and towns since October 2019 are fed up with the militias and have demanded their disarmament and demobilisation, the replacement of the sectarian regime with a secular democratic government, and an end to US and Iranian intervention on Iraq’s affairs. Militiamen have responded by attacking protests and assassinating activists, deepening popular rejection of the regime that protects the militias.

Ahead of the bombings, Biden phoned Kadhimi and urged him to restrain the militias and prosecute militiamen who carry out strikes on US personnel but, apparently, said nothing about their nefarious activities in Iraq. Biden is interested only in attacks on US troops who should not be in Iraq in the first place. “America is back:” back to traditional US bad behaviour.

Biden’s strikes could complicate European efforts to convene a gathering of the signatories of the nuclear agreement — Britain, France, Germany, China, Russia, the US and Iran — with the goal of creating a mechanism which would enable Washington and Tehran to re-enter the pact simultaneously. Former US president Donald Trump abandoned it and imposed punitive sanctions in 2018.

More than a year later, Iran initiated phased breaches of the deal. Tehran raised the level of uranium enrichment from 3.67 to 20 per cent, accumulated a stockpile 12 times the amount allowed, employed high resolution centrifuges for enrichment and, last week, suspended snap inspections of some nuclear sites by UN experts. Iran has said it will reverse all violations in short order as soon as Biden reverts to the deal and lifts sanctions. He can re-enter the accord by simply signing an executive order. Although he will have to untangle hundreds of sanctions imposed by Trump which could take time and create fresh friction, Biden could urge foreign banks to unfreeze Iranian accounts and lift sanctions on oil sales and shipping, as major confidence building measures.

Instead of promptly honouring his pledge to recommit to the deal, Biden has procrastinated and prevaricated due to differences among his advisers. Biden’s envoy to the deal, Robert Malley, has urged prompt re-entry. Secretary of State Antony Blinken argues Iran has to resume compliance first. Iran insists the US should be first as Trump left the deal. Meanwhile, Biden ignores warnings that there is no time to waste. Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani, who supports the deal, could be replaced by a hardline rejectionist in June’s election.

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