Sara Plana is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science and a student in the Security Studies Program. She researches proxy warfare and is working on a book that examines how states control non-state armed groups they sponsor in foreign civil wars through case studies of state-proxy relationships in the Syrian civil war from 2011 to the present.
Plana is a 2021-22 postdoctoral fellow at Perry World House and a pre-doctoral fellow at the International Security Program at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs for 2020-21.
Penn Today sat down with Plana to get her take on the US airstrikes along the Iraq-Syria border and the bigger picture of what’s happening in the region. The article was first published here.
The United States has carried out airstrikes targeting Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria in recent days. The Biden administration said the attacks on weapons storage facilities were meant to deter increasing violence by the militias Kata’ib Hezbollah and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada. The Iraqi Shia paramilitary groups had conducted drone attacks against US troops in Iraq over the last few months.
Who exactly are those militia groups, and why is the US responding in this way at this time?
What is the US concerned about in the area along the Iraqi and Syrian border, and why are they responding with airstrikes at this time in particular?
Iran-backed militias are operating in Iraq and have been targeting American forces who have been deployed to Iraq in a counterterrorism advising mission for years. Since at least 2019, these militias have launched rockets to hit bases where American forces are stationed, advising Iraqi forces on countering ISIS. These attacks have killed at least four Americans and dozens of Iraqi soldiers. Since April, these Iran-sponsored armed groups—colloquially called proxies—have been implicated in a series of new types of attacks, specifically dive-bombing-drone attacks on bases in Iraq hosting American military advisors. The use of drones is new, and many analysts and media sources attribute these attacks to Iran-backed militia groups, tracing remaining drone parts to Iran.
The use of drones by these militias is new, but there is a long history of these militias targeting US forces, as far back as the Iraq War. American officials have claimed that the latest US strikes on weapons depots and militia bases along the Iraq-Syria border are in response to this escalatory use of drone strikes by the proxies. Many of them harbor facilities on the Syrian side of the Iraq border, where they’re able to plan and project attacks into Iraq. This is in part because, since the early years of the Syrian civil war, Iran has facilitated transport and supplies for the militias to get involved in Syria, to help the Syrian regime counter the revolution and regain power there.
What can you tell us about the militias whose facilities were struck, Kata’ib Hezbollah and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada?
Both are Iraqi Shia militias that have received funding, military supplies, and advising from Iran, specifically its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or the IRGC, which is the main arm of the Iranian military that manages its network of proxies in the region. In recent years, both militias have operated within Iraq to roll back ISIS and in Syria to protect the Syrian regime. They’ve both opposed American troop presence in Iraq for many years.
Kata’ib Hezbollah, or KH, was founded in 2003 and was implicated in a lot of attacks against US forces during the Iraq War. It’s been a longtime Iran-sponsored Iraqi Shia militia, and lately it was involved in fighting ISIS in Iraq, as part of the Popular Mobilization Forces, which comprise an auxiliary arm of the Iraqi security forces.
KH was implicated in rocket attacks that provoked a response by the Trump administration in December 2019, when the Trump administration hit their headquarters in a far western Iraqi town along the border with Syria. In response, KH supporters protested and stormed the US embassy compound in Baghdad. You might recall the harrowing images of the compound being surrounded.
That incident was a precursor to a decision a few days later by the Trump administration to launch an airstrike on and kill the IRGC commander Qasem Soleimani in January 2020. As part of that strike, the longtime leader of KH’s militia was also killed. The strike on Soleimani precipitated a standoff that culminated in Iranian missile strikes on US bases in Iraq, wounding several US soldiers and causing the death of 176 people in Ukrainian Airlines flight 752 when Iran mistakenly shot it down, mistakenly fearing an American aerial attack.
Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada was founded in 2013, possibly as a splinter from KH. It’s a newer group also operating in both Iraq and Syria, so there’s less information about this group, but it also operated out of some of the targets that this latest US strike hit.
How will the US strikes and response affect the US and Iran’s efforts to re-enter the nuclear deal?
The original nuclear deal with Iran specifically scoped out the relationships that Iran has had with proxy groups throughout the region, in order to focus on the nuclear issue. But as part of the new negotiations between Iran and the United States, the Biden administration has expressed a desire to not necessarily fold in the proxy question but to encourage Iran to start discussions for a follow-on agreement to curb their assistance to these groups.
There’s a lot of pressure, especially from the Gulf states, to require that Iran agree to stop supplying the proxies as part of the new deal, forcing Iran to come to terms on the nuclear program, its ballistic missile program, and its proxy program. My impression is that the Biden administration is trying to occupy a middle ground there.
However, a new round of negotiations for the new deal have actually been ongoing since April, exactly when Iran-backed militias reportedly began using drones in their attacks on bases.
Both the United States and Iran seem committed to at least talking about reentering a nuclear deal. They both have an interest in coming to the table. Iran wants sanctions to end, and the Biden administration has committed to renegotiating a nuclear deal and preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
The fact that they’re both incentivized to come to the table means that they also have both have incentives, if not necessarily to stop the tit-for-tat cycle of violence, to keep that sort of violence from escalating into greater tensions or a more sustained confrontation, like we saw in January 2020, which could have the prospect of spoiling talks.
Some American lawmakers are questioning the sustained presence of troops along the Iraq/Syria border. Does the US still need them there?
The Biden administration released an interim national security guidance that still identifies terrorism as a major and enduring threat against Americans and also against American allies. They vowed in the guidance to specifically work with partners to disrupt and deny attacks by terrorist groups like ISIS, for example, from launching attacks into the United States and the territory of American allies.
According to the Defense Department, the mission of remaining US troops in Iraq and Syria (about 2500 troops in Iraq, and about 900 troops in Syria) are to advise and assist Iraqis and Syrian partners to help them root out ISIS cells and prevent an ISIS resurgence.
The Department of Defense is conducting a force posture review of military deployments, including Iraq and Syria and other advising missions which happen throughout the globe, especially for counterterrorism reasons. They may feel the need to adjust troop levels again according to their needs and the needs of partner forces. The Iraqi Government has requested the presence of advisors; the Syrian Democratic Forces have also requested the continued presence of US troops to keep a tamp down on ISIS.
The question is, What do we assess as the main threat of ISIS and the cost of continued advisors on the ground, versus the cost of removing those advisors and the capability of local partner forces to continue? It’s an open question that a lot of researchers have tried to answer and there’s a lot of disagreement about it. I’m sure we’ll see continued debates in Congress.
What is the most important thing for people to understand about what is happening in the region?
One thing to remember is that the American strikes are not isolated. They are part of a larger pattern of tit-for-tat strikes. These militias have propelled rockets or drones against US forces, and the US military has responded dating back many years. Within a day after the latest American strikes against the targets along the Iraq-Syria border, militias retaliated by launching rockets at US forces in Syria.
The second thing to keep in mind is why Iran is sponsoring these groups. Research on why states sponsor armed groups shows that launching attacks through proxies as opposed to directly attacking is often done to avoid escalation. Iran knows it cannot match America’s military superiority in the region and in general, and therefore takes to less costly and more asymmetric approaches like attacks through proxies to advance its interests.
These attacks are cheap; they only require a couple fighters to launch them and because they cause limited damage proportional responses by the target, in this case the United States, would also likely be limited. These low-level attacks are often intended not to escalate.
That brings me to the final point that these events are not just between Iran and the United States. We should keep that in mind in two ways. The first is that the intermediaries are Iraqi militias, so despite their links with the Iranian IRGC they have their own interests as Iraqis in opposing the American presence in Iraq, with or without Iranian support. Iranian support is obviously making it easier for them and enabling them to attack, maybe providing them with new ideas and information to act upon. But I have a hard time believing that if Iran ceased supporting them that the problem would go away.
It’s also important to keep in mind that this violence is not just between Iran and the US because the Iraqi government and the Iraqi people are in the middle. The Iran-backed militias target American forces on Iraqi bases, and Iraqi forces have suffered the highest casualties from these attacks. American decisions to strike these militias within Iraqi territory (one of the three targets in the last American strike was on the Iraqi side of the border) have also caused consternation from the Iraqi government, which has claimed US forces did not seek permission and objected to more violence in Iraqi territory.
Iraqis are caught in the middle.