September 25, 2021
Middle East

Militia targets attacked by US as Biden sends warning he will be tough on Iran A US airstrike targeting facilities used by Iran-backed militias in Syria looks like a message to Tehran from President Joe Biden’s administration as he assesses his policies in the Middle East.

It appeared to be a response to rocket attacks by groups based in Iraq that have targeted American bases. It comes even as Washington and Tehran consider a return to the 2015 accord designed to rein in Iran’s nuclear

The US looks to have carefully chosen the target, just across the border in Syria rather than in Iraq. It’s a way for Mr Biden to signal he will be tough on Iran while avoiding a response that could offset the delicate balance in Iraq itself or trigger a wider

And it’s yet another example of how Syria, mired in civil war for the past decade, has often served as a proxy battlefield for world powers.

The airstrike targeted one of the most powerful Iran-backed militias in the region – Kataeb Hezbollah, or the Hezbollah Brigades. The group is part of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, which includes an array of Iraqi militias.

The group was founded after the 2003 invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein. It is separate from Lebanon’s Hezbollah, but the two groups are strong allies. In recent years, Kataeb Hezbollah has played a major role in the fight against Isil as well as helping President Bashar Assad’s forces in Syria’s conflict.

It was founded by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a veteran Iraqi militant who was closely allied with Iran and killed in a US drone attack in Baghdad in January 2020 along with General Qassem Soleimani, who was commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force.

The US has hit the group before. In December 2019, an American strike along the Syria-Iraq border killed 25 of its fighters and wounded dozens. Washington called it retaliation for the death of a US contractor in a rocket attack that it blamed on Kataeb Hezbollah.

The attack is likely aimed at sending a message to Tehran that the US will not tolerate attacks against American interests in the region, while leaving the door open for talks.

It comes as the Biden administration attempts to resurrect the 2015 Iran nuclear deal which gave Tehran billions of dollars in sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear programme. The Trump administration had pulled out of the deal.

In the meantime, relations with Iran have been further strained as the country’s proxies become more assertive, with militias increasingly targeting American interests and allies. Worries that the standoff between the US and Iran could end up being fought out in Iraq have been rekindled.

There are signs that Iraq is being used to fight a proxy war. Explosive-laden drones that targeted Saudi Arabia’s royal palace in the kingdom’s capital last month were launched from inside Iraq, a senior Iran-backed militia official in Baghdad and a US official said this week.

However, Mr Biden’s decision to attack in Syria does not appear to signal an intention to widen military involvement in the region.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the operation sent an unambiguous message: “President Biden will act to protect American and coalition personnel.

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