Featured Image: Military vehicles of Iraqi army tour at al-Waleed air base near Al-Tanf. By JOHN DAVISON / REUTERS (Licensed)
By Ilan Fuchs, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, Legal Studies
Since the new administration was sworn in a few months ago, it’s clear that there will be tests by adversaries of the United States. Be it Russia, China, or Iran–the new administration will need to deal with attempts to test its resolve and willingness to deal with the pushback after the Trump era.
These tests certainly arrived. The fall of Kabul was seen by some as a decline in U.S. hegemony – and China was eager to show its strength in the latest developments in the straits of Taiwan with a constant show of force by infringing on Taiwan’s air space. Using its proxies last week, Iran took the next step when the only U.S. base in Syria was attacked by unmanned aircraft. This attack has significance on a much larger scale than just the regional context.
The Attack on Al-Tanf
The Al-Tanf base in southeast Syria houses several hundred service members who work with Syrian opposition forces against the remnants of ISIS in the area. Al-Tanf is close to the triangle of borders between Syria, Iraq, and Jordan – and has been used by the U.S. without interruption for several years. On October 20, the base was attacked. In a statement, Central Command spokesman Capt. Bill Urban confirmed:
“A deliberate and coordinated attack. Based on initial reports, the attack utilized both unmanned aerial systems and indirect fire. All U.S. personnel have been accounted for, and we are not aware of any injuries to U.S. personnel at this time. We continue to work with our partners to confirm whether they suffered any casualties as a result of this deliberate attack. We maintain the inherent right of self-defense and will respond at a time and place of our choosing.”
The Washington Institute for Foreign Affairs reported a façade group took responsibility for the attack releasing a statement to pro-Iranian news outlets in Iraq: “Our mission and legitimate presence in Syria has always been to help the Syrian state. We work under the auspices of the [Syrian] state to confront the terrorists and the takfiri (apostate) project led by the Islamic State. For years, we have been subjected to attacks from the Israeli-American enemy, and these attacks were an attempt to drag us into side battles that were not among the priorities of our presence in Syria.”
Iran Sanctioned the Attack
The attack was meant to send a message; a major test for American resolve. The former administration ordered the assassination of Qassim Suleimani – the man responsible for the use of this tactic against American bases in Iraq. What brought about this specific action? The backstory was released by Ron Ben-Yishai, an Israeli senior journalist, who has been reporting in Israel for about five decades. His seniority makes him the go-to person when high-level Israeli officials want to release information that cannot be attributed to them directly.
Ben-Yishai reported after the attack, that the air space of Al-Tanf was used by the Israeli Air Force to launch attacks on Iranian targets in Syria. The Iranians wanted to send a message to the U.S. to stop them from using the airspace for attacks.
The interesting piece of the puzzle that Ben-Yishai supplies are why would Israel use airspace in south Syria? The Israeli Air Force frequently attacks from Lebanon or from Israeli airspace because it is much closer.
Ben-Yishai wrote that the choice in southern Syria was to benefit Russia: “There may also be a political reason for using Al-Tanf as a launching pad for strikes. The attacks attributed to Israel in Syria embarrassed the Russians since their air defenses were unable to stop the attacks or the destruction caused, despite their claim to the contrary. Israel has often been successful in slowing Iranian efforts of entrenchment in Syria as well as the Lebanese based Hezbollah terror groups’ precise missile project.”
In other words, the constant successful attacks of the Israeli Air Force in an area covered heavily with Russian anti-aircraft missiles reflect badly on Russian technology – it is simply not good for sales. Ben-Yishai concluded in what is as close as you can get to an official statement from Israeli officials: “Whoever launched strikes from the al-Tanf base, aimed to avoid causing further embarrassment for the Russian military, indicating that the decision to operate from that area, had military, political and economic considerations. “Iran understands the reasons behind the use of the secluded base. The attack against the base is a result of Tehran’s shift in strategy, choosing to attack Western forces themselves, rather than sending their proxies to carry out the mission.”
Iran Is Testing the Waters
The new president in Iran is testing the waters. Iran knew full well why the Al-Tanf airspace was chosen, for the sake of the Russian presence in Syria. The choice to attack the base illustrates that Iran is flexing its muscles to show that it will strike back. In the context of the stalled nuclear talks, it makes perfect sense. The question that remains is what will the U.S. do in retaliation? After the fall of Kabul, and the actions China is taking in relation to Taiwan, something must be done. A show of weakness does not bode well in the jungle of international politics.