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The coming escalation in Syria

The US military has been engaged in a series of airstrikes against Iran-backed groups in Syria, following a deadly drone attack on a coalition base in the country’s north-east. The drone attack, which occurred on Thursday, killed one US contractor and wounded six others, including five US service members. The Pentagon said the drone was of Iranian origin and was launched by groups affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

The US retaliation targeted facilities used by the IRGC-linked groups in eastern Syria, near the border with Iraq. The US defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, said the airstrikes were meant to deter future attacks and protect US and coalition forces. He said no group would strike US troops with impunity.

The drone attack and the US response have escalated tensions between Washington and Tehran, which have been at odds over Iran’s nuclear program and its regional influence. The Biden administration has expressed interest in reviving the 2015 nuclear deal that former president Donald Trump withdrew from in 2018, but Iran has demanded that the US lift sanctions first.

The US presence in Syria has also been a source of friction with Iran, which supports the regime of Bashar al-Assad and has deployed its own forces and proxies to fight against rebel groups and Islamic State militants. Iran has accused the US of occupying Syrian territory and exploiting its oil resources.

The US entered Syria in 2015 as part of a coalition to fight against Islamic State, which had seized large swathes of land in Syria and Iraq. The US still maintains a base near Hasakah in north-east Syria, where the drone attack happened. There are about 900 US troops and contractors in Syria, mainly supporting local Kurdish-led forces.

The drone attack was not the first time that Iran-backed groups have targeted US forces in Syria or Iraq, where they also operate. In February and June 2021, as well as August 2022, the US launched airstrikes against such groups in Syria after they attacked US personnel or facilities in Iraq. The US has also blamed Iran for a series of rocket attacks on its embassy in Baghdad.

Iran has denied responsibility for the attacks and has warned the US against any further aggression. Iran’s state media said no Iranian was killed in the latest US strikes and that local sources denied that the target was a military post. Iran’s Press TV quoted a military source in Syria as saying that the resistance groups reserve their right to respond to the American attack and will take reciprocal action.

The Pentagon said the drone was Iranian-made and blamed groups affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) for the attack. The IRGC is a powerful paramilitary force that operates across the Middle East, supporting allies such as Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, and Yemen’s Houthi rebels.

In response, President Joe Biden ordered multiple airstrikes on facilities used by the IRGC-linked groups in eastern Syria, near the border with Iraq. The US defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, said the strikes were meant to deter future attacks and send a clear message to Iran that no group will strike US troops with impunity.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, said eight pro-Iranian fighters were killed in the US strikes. Iran’s state media denied that any Iranians were killed and said the targets were civilian facilities. They also warned that the resistance groups reserve their right to retaliate against the US attack.

This is not the first time that Iran and the US have clashed in Syria. In February 2021, Biden authorized his first military action as president, striking IRGC-backed militias in Syria after they fired rockets at US forces in Iraq. In June 2021, the US again bombed militia targets in Syria and Iraq after drone attacks on US personnel and facilities. In August 2022, the US carried out another round of strikes in Syria following a rocket attack on a US base near Erbil in northern Iraq.

The repeated attacks and counterattacks reflect the deep-rooted animosity between Iran and the US, which have been at odds since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that toppled the US-backed shah of Iran. The two countries have no diplomatic relations and have accused each other of destabilizing the region and supporting terrorism.

The tensions have also been fueled by the unresolved issue of Iran’s nuclear program, which the US and its allies fear could be used to develop atomic weapons. In 2015, Iran signed a landmark deal with six world powers, including the US, that lifted sanctions on Tehran in exchange for curbs on its nuclear activities. However, former President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018 and reimposed harsh sanctions on Iran, prompting Tehran to gradually breach its commitments under the agreement.

Biden has expressed his willingness to rejoin the deal if Iran returns to full compliance, but the negotiations have been stalled by mutual distrust and disagreements over how to sequence the steps. Meanwhile, Iran has continued to enrich uranium to higher levels and expand its nuclear facilities, raising concerns about its intentions and capabilities.

The situation in Syria is further complicated by the presence of other actors, such as Russia, Turkey, Israel, and various rebel groups. Syria has been mired in a civil war since 2011 when anti-government protests erupted against Assad’s rule. The conflict has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions more.

Iran has been one of Assad’s main allies, providing him with military and financial support to help him survive against his opponents. The US has backed some of the rebel factions fighting against Assad, but its main focus has been on defeating the Islamic State group (IS), which emerged as a major threat in Syria and Iraq in 2014.

The US-led coalition against IS has partnered with local forces, such as the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which control large swathes of territory in northeast Syria. The SDF have also clashed with Turkey, which views them as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish separatist group that has waged a decades-long insurgency against Ankara.

Israel, meanwhile, has conducted hundreds of airstrikes on Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria, saying it is defending its security interests and preventing Iran from establishing a permanent foothold near its borders. Israel and Iran are sworn enemies and have exchanged threats of war.

The complex web of alliances and rivalries in Syria poses significant challenges for any diplomatic solution to end the violence and stabilize the country. The UN has been trying to broker a political settlement between the Syrian government and opposition groups since 2012, but little progress has been made so far.

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