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IRGC Attacks on US Bases in Syria Cause Rising Tensions

On March 23, 2023, the Department of Defense reported that Iranian-backed forces using a drone attacked a U.S. base, causing the death of a U.S. citizen working as a military contractor. The attack also caused non-life-threatening injuries to five servicemembers and another U.S. contractor, and it was later followed by a second attack to a different base by 10 rockets, according to CNN. These incidents are yet another escalation in the series of attacks orchestrated by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Ultimately, they will require a long-term strategy from the White House.

Attack and Counterattack

NPR’s Tom Bowman had this to say on the attack on the first U.S. base: “U.S. intelligence says that it was an Iranian drone that hit this American base in northeast Syria near the city of Hasakah. And besides killing that American contractor, two of the five soldiers had to be medically evacuated, though I’m told their injuries are not life-threatening.

“Now, [the] U.S. says there have been 78 attacks in Syria by these Iranian-backed militias in the last several years, including through drones, rockets and mortars. And this is the first American death, they say.”

Significantly, this latest attack by Iranian proxy forces is only different from the preceding 77 because it ended with a fatality. It is important to understand that these militias are controlled by the IRGC, which has been present in Syria since the beginning of the civil war when the IRGC came to the aid of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

[Related article: The Iran and Russia Alliance: How Will It Affect the Future?]

The IRGC in Syria

The presence of high-ranking IRGC officers in Syria allows Iran to have close control over these militias and use them as subcontractors to execute attacks. Samer al-Ahmed from the Middle East Institute described the overarching goal of the IRGC this way: “Iran aims to disrupt U.S. forces in the region, as made clear by the incursions of Iranian affiliates in Hasakah’s city center as well as efforts to recruit hundreds of tribesmen into IRGC-affiliated brigades.”

The fatality and the injuries of the servicemembers brought a clear American response. The New York Post reported that American airstrikes conducted by F-15 jets killed a total of 19 fighters from Iranian proxy militias during the striking of targets in eastern Syria a day after the drone attack.

Similarly, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (which collects information from within Syria) reported that three of the 19 killed were Syrian servicemembers, while other fatalities included 11 pro-government militia members and five non-Syrian fighters. These non-Syrians were likely Iraqi or Lebanese operatives or maybe even Iranians.

The Big Picture in Iran

The U.S. presence in northern Syria is part of the ongoing effort to keep the remnants of ISIS under control. The choice of the Iranian-backed militias – which also fought ISIS – has nothing to do with the situation in Syria; the larger issue involves U.S.-Iranian relations.

According to The Jordan Times, the regime in Tehran has always seen the U.S. as the “big devil.” Iran’s Supreme Leader – along with the IRGC – can sustain a base of support with the continued narrative that the U.S. wants to destroy Iran.

Patrick Clawson, the Morningstar Senior Fellow and Director of Research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote in a recent report that a growing sense of skepticism is forming within the IRGC regarding the heavy-handed approach of the Iranian regime concerning the civilian population.

Clawson’s report is based on a purportedly original 44-page document from opposition news outlets that describes a meeting of IRGC leadership and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. If confirmed and authenticated, the document reports low morale in the military, critique for the growing role of Khamenei’s son Mojtaba in the organization and also a visible fissure in the ranks of Iran’s ruling clerics.

‘Portraying Religious Figures as the Nation’s Ruling Class’

Mehdi Khalaji, the Libitzky Family Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote in a different paper that it is clear that many among the clerics have lost faith in the hierarchy. Khaliji also noted that many clerics choose not to wear their religious garb in the streets for fear of attacks by ordinary Iranian citizens, representing an existential problem for the Shia Ulama in Iran.  

“Even as members of the ‘traditional clergy’ criticize the regime for portraying religious figures as the nation’s ruling class and source of legitimacy, they are also unable to countenance a secular form of government in which religious institutions are no longer privileged,” stated Khalaji. “The practical consequences of this dilemma have become painfully clear since last fall: the traditional clergy are politically disabled, with no will or means to disassociate themselves from the government and side with the people’s democratic demands.”

What Is America’s Next Step in Dealing With Iran and the IRGC?

The U.S. should make some long-term decisions, but the real question concerns the future of the Iranian nuclear program.

Ultimately, the agreement between Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia suggests that the U.S. is losing its position and interest in the region. The Chinese involvement in the agreement – and the fallout of the Taliban takeover (along with the ongoing war in Ukraine) – led many people to think the international arena is permanently changing.

A Nuclear Iran Will Destabilize the World’s Most Important Energy Supply

It is essential that the U.S. play an active role in reshaping new international relations. A nuclear Iran will mean the most important energy supply in the world will be destabilized – resulting in long-term ramifications for countries dependent upon Middle Eastern fuel. In addition, the U.S. is dealing with a radical regime that believes the U.S.-led West is morally corrupt and that Iran has a religious duty to spread its religious message all over the world by any means necessary.

Ilan Fuchs

Dr. Ilan Fuchs is a scholar of international law and legal history. He holds a B.A. in Humanities and Social Science from The Open University of Israel and an M.A. in Jewish history from Bar-Ilan University. Ilan’s other degrees include an LL.B., an LL.M. and a Ph.D. in Law from Bar-Ilan University. He is the author of “Jewish Women’s Torah Study: Orthodox Education and Modernity,” and 18 articles in leading scholarly journals. At the University, Ilan teaches courses on international law while maintaining a law practice in several jurisdictions.

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