The strikes can be seen as a positive step, but at the same time they expose the fact that the US cannot strike back at Iran inside Iraq.
US airstrikes conducted last week against Iranian-backed Shia militias in Deir Ezzor, Syria were described by the US administration as a defensive act in retaliation for mortar attacks by Iran-backed Shia militias in Iraq against US forces – and a warning to Iran to ‘be careful’.
The strikes coincide with the Iranian government's rejection of the European Union's offer for direct talks with the US on the nuclear deal. While both Iran and the US seem willing to talk, both sides are eager to increase leverage before the start of negotiations.
In recent months, Iran has demonstrated its superior position in Iraq. US policies in Iraq, the Nouri al-Maliki era, and the US strategy against Daesh has had one consistent result: empowering Iran.
In the Saddam Hussain era, Iraq was Iran's fiercest rival in the Middle East, but today, Iran controls several militias in Iraq and enjoys a tight grip over several Iraqi political parties. There is no significant decision taken in Baghdad where Iran's shadow isn’t omnipresent. The Iraqi army is neither capable nor willing to balance or limit Iran-backed militias in Iraq, and Tehran knows well how to use proxies to manipulate politics abroad.
Iran has used its position to attack US soldiers and facilities sporadically, indicating that the US should restrain from provoking Iran. Moreover, Iran also used its proxies to threaten Turkey and protect the PKK.
The Iranians aspire for total control over Iraq and to push out potential rivals in both the US and Turkey. This strategy is often referred to as Iran's creation of a so-called ‘Shia Crescent’ over the Middle East. From Iraq to Syria and Lebanon, Tehran aims to have a direct influence over the fate of these countries and their people through proxies, both military and political.
As part of this strategy, Iran has built up a connected route and a supply chain, from Tehran all the way to Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon. The border crossing between Syria and Lebanon is entirely controlled by Hezbollah and forces loyal to Iran. The international airport in Damascus and its surroundings are controlled by Iran. The route from Damascus to the Iraqi-Syrian border at Abu Kamal in Deir Ezzor is controlled by Iran-backed Shia militias. The Iraqi side of the border up until Basra and Baghdad is controlled by Iran-backed militias. In reality, the border between Iraq and Syria and the border between Lebanon and Syria only exist on paper. Militias come and go as they please.
Historically, the Syrian side of the border with Iraq has been inhabited by Sunni Arab tribesmen. These tribesmen were fierce opponents of Iran, but as their territories became the heartland of Daesh, Iran exploited this to control their region. At the moment, several different Shia militias are present in Deir Ezzor.
All of these militias are located west of the Euphrates River. The east is controlled by the US and the YPG, but this control only prevents Iran from accessing the relatively small oil field. It neither hinders nor endangers Iran's supply route from Tehran to Beirut. Moreover, the YPG is not a hostile actor for Iran.
On the contrary, when the US partnered with the YPG, a main criteria was not to alienate Iran and to sustain the nuclear deal with Iran. The US rejected partnering with the armed Syrian opposition against Daesh, as the Syrian opposition's primary fight was against the Assad regime and Iran.
Until today, the US has not hindered the air supply route from Tehran to Damascus. It is well known that Iran has shipped weapons, ammunition and militants by air to bolster the Assad regime, for years. Each of the flights were made using Iraqi airspace.
Within these parameters, the US airstrike against Iran-backed militias in Deir Ezzor, Syria can be considered a step in the right direction, but it is definitely not enough. For instance, Israel has conducted several airstrikes in the same region and inflicted more damage than the US did.
The US has no strategy, no vision and no local partner to cut off Iran’s only land route from Tehran to Beirut. It is telling that the US chose to retaliate in Syria where Iran’s position is legally, militarily and politically weaker than it is in Iraq – where Iranian anti-US aggression is taking place. In Iraq, the US has, willingly or unwillingly, empowered Iran over the years. So much so that the US hesitates to confront Iran in Iraq.
From the Iranian perspective, US airstrikes in Syria are a sign of weakness. In contrast to the Trump administration which killed Qasem Soleimani in Iraq, the Biden administration did not risk striking Iranian Shia militias inside Iraq but waited for them to cross into Syria.
The Iranian response to this airstrike has yet to be seen, but one thing is clear: Washington and Tehran want to increase their bargaining positions before they enter into negotiations for a nuclear deal, but without risking a crisis that will completely derail negotiations.
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