Recently there has been an increase in operations against the U.S. military presence in Syria. Within only two weeks there were six incidents of rocket and mortar fire against two bases of the U.S.-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS in northeastern Syria: the Al-Omar oil field east of Deir Al-Zor, which is the largest coalition base in Syria and houses U.S., French and British troops, and the base at the Conoco gas field in the same region. While the attacks did not result in casualties, they no doubt reflect a shift in the struggle against the U.S. forces in Syria, which has until now mainly involved local villagers throwing stones at military vehicles and blocking military patrols, as well as clashes with regime forces at checkpoints manned by the latter.
The trigger for the recent escalation was the June 27, 2021 U.S. airstrikes on positions of the Iran-backed militias on the Syria-Iraq border. The U.S. Defense Department announced that the positions attacked belonged to the Iraqi militias Kataib Hizbullah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada, which have been involved in action against U.S. forces in Iraq. Following the airstrikes, the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) – the umbrella organization of the Iran-backed Iraqi militias, which includes the two militias which were attacked – announced that four operatives had been killed, and in response several of the militias threatened revenge.
So far, no organization has claimed responsibility for the recent rocket and mortar attacks on the U.S. bases in Syria, but the threats of the Iran-backed Shi’ite militias indicate that they are probably behind them. Syrian state papers, and the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, which supports the Syrian regime, presented the attacks as a new phase in the Syrian popular resistance aimed at expelling the Americans from Syria, and warned that they would continue and escalate. They threatened that, from now on, every American attack will be met with a counterattack. It should be noted that threats of violent action against the U.S. forces have been made in the Syrian media for years.
This report reviews the recent attacks on the U.S. forces and the Syrian threats to continue the escalation.
Six Attacks Within Two Weeks On U.S. Forces In Syria; Statements, Reports Indicate That Iraqi Militias Are Responsible
As stated, since the June 27 U.S. airstrike on militia positions on the Syria-Iraq border, six attacks on U.S. forces in northeastern Syrian have been reported. The first occurred one day after the U.S. airstrike, on June 28. According to a report by the Syrian Human Rights Observatory, several mortars were fired at the base at the Al-Omar oil field east of Deir Al-Zor, burning several vehicles but causing no casualties. The report stated further that Iranian militias deployed west of the Euphrates were responsible for the attack. About one week later, on July 4, 2021, the Syrian regime’s news agency SANA reported that several rockets had been fired at the same base. The Euphrates Post News website, which reports on events in eastern Syria, claimed that explosions had been heard at the coalition base at the Conoco gas field in the same region, but coalition spokesperson Wayne Marotto denied that either base had been targeted.
On July 7, there were again reports about an attack on the Al-Omar oil field base, which, according to SANA, were carried out by drones. On July 10 SANA reported that explosions had been heard at the Conoco gas field base. A source in the U.S. Defense Department admitted that the base had been hit, but stated that there were no casualties or damage. One day later, the Syrian Human Rights Observatory reported that a locally-manufactured rocket had hit the Al-Omar oil field base without causing casualties. The latest attack reported occurred on July 13, also at the Al-Omar oil field base. Iran’s Al-Alam TV claimed that mortars had been fired, damaging military vehicles, but U.S. Defense Department Spokesperson John Kirby denied any knowledge of such an attack.
While no organization has claimed the attacks, various statements indicate that they were carried out by Iran-backed Iraqi militias. In reference to the attacks on the U.S. bases, Kazem Al-Fartousi, spokesman for the Iraqi Kataib Sayyid Al-Shuhada militia, said on July 11 to the London-based daily Al-Arabi Al-Jadid that “the response of the resistance to the American aggression is not limited to Iraq.” He added that “the purpose of the Iraqi factions’ presence in Syria is to fight ISIS and defend the Iraqi border. U.S. planes attacked [the militias] in these areas, so a response in the same areas is legitimate.”
Furthermore, following the June 27 U.S. airstrike in the Syria-Iraq border region, an Iranian delegation headed by Hossein Taeb, the intelligence chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), visited Baghdad. Sources in the Shi’ite Iraqi militias said that the Iranians urged the militia commanders to step up their retaliation against the U.S. forces in Syria.
The Eye of Euphrates network, affiliated with the Syrian opposition, which reports on eastern Syria, posted that, in a July 3 meeting of PMU commanders in the Al-Hiri area in Syria, near the Iraqi border, the commanders decided to attack the coalition bases in the region. The network reported further that some ten Iranian rocket experts joined militia positions in the Deir Al-Zor and Al-Raqqah areas for the purpose of the attacks on the U.S. bases in northeastern Syria.
Articles In Syrian Press: From Now On We Will Respond To Every American Act Of Aggression; The U.S. Bases Are Vulnerable
Articles in the Syrian state press described the attacks on the U.S. bases as the beginning of a new phase in the struggle to expel the Americans from Syria, a phase in which the popular Syrian resistance will expand and no U.S. act of aggression will go unanswered. It should be mentioned that, in previous years, clashes between Syrian regime forces or pro-regime locals and the U.S. forces were accompanied by many articles in the Syrian press threatening the U.S. presence in the country. These articles too stressed that the popular resistance against the U.S. forces in Syria would escalate and put the lives of the U.S. soldiers in danger.
Muhriz Al-‘Ali, a columnist in the Syrian state daily Al-Thawra, wrote on June 30, 2021: “The American aggression on the Syria-Iraq border, manifested in attacks on the positions of the Syrian Arab army and of the Iraqi army, represented by the PMU, is part of the Americans’ unlimited support for the terror organizations, chief of them ISIS, which carries out the aggressive American policy in Syria and Iraq. [This aggression is also] part of the U.S. strategy of maintaining the tension in the region so as to justify its illegitimate presence and its looting of the strategic resources of the two countries…
“The American considerations [underpinning] this aggression… and [the assessment] that there would be no consequences, were mistaken. The reaction was quick to arrive, and the illegitimate U.S. base at the Al-Omar oil field was attacked. The [Iraqi] resistance had in fact announced that it would respond to the U.S. aggression. It conveyed a firm message to the American occupier, that in the new phase every act of aggression would lead to consequences, specifically to attacks on the American occupier and its mercenaries…
“The developments on the ground, reflected by the bombardment of the illegitimate U.S. bases, indicate that the next phase will be characterized by a strike in response to every strike. No act of aggression will go without a response that will cause the American occupier to regret his arrogance and [eventually] force him to leave Syria and respect the international resolutions. History teaches that peoples that defend their just causes [eventually] emerge victorious.”
Atiyya Al-Atiyya, a columnist for the Syrian state daily Al-Ba’th, wrote that the attacks on the U.S. forces are an important development in the popular resistance against the U.S. in Syria: “The attacks on the illegitimate base of the American occupation at the Al-Omar oil field east of Deir Al-Zor – the largest base in the Jazirah and Euphrates River region [i.e., northern Syria], which houses troops of many Western armies, and is also where the American occupation forces meet with their supporters in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – was a military operation of great significance in the development of the popular resistance waged by the Arab tribes in the region, which focuses on the need to expel the American occupation and its supporters from Syria…
“The bombardment also had indirect goals, as part of the expanding popular and tribal resistance against the presence of the American occupation and its supporters in the SDF militia, [resistance that extends] from the Deir Al-Zor area in the east to Al-Hasakah, Al-Raqqah and Manbij in the environs of Aleppo in the north. This expansion makes the tribal Arab resistance more effective and powerful. It is now easy to reach the occupation and its positions, which it claims are fortified, and it is also possible to develop the abilities of the tribal resistance, so that its role will be to attack the foreign presence on Syrian soil, especially in the region east of the Euphrates… This attack on the American occupation base is not the first and will not be the last, but it is the first of its kind in terms of the weapons used (military-grade rockets and cannon), the timing and the place, and in terms of the unity of the ranks of the popular resistance [forces] within the resistance axis, which makes [these forces] a direct threat to all the occupying armies in Syria.”
Lebanese Daily Al-Akhbar: This Is A New Phase In The Escalation; The Resistance Axis Is Determined To Respond To Any Attack
The Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, which is close to Hizbullah and to the Syrian regime, likewise regarded the attacks on the U.S. forces in Syria as proof of the Iranian axis’ ability to respond to any aggression against it in the region, and assessed that the resistance against the U.S. forces in Syria would escalate. Al-Akhbar reporter Ayham Mare’i wrote that the attacks were intended to convey a message to the U.S., namely that the presence of the pro-Iranian forces in Syria is legitimate, unlike the presence of the American forces, which must be expelled. Mare’i wrote on June 29, 2021: “The attack on the [Al-Omar] base, one of the most important American bases in Syria, indicated the abilities of the resistance axis, and its determination to respond to every attack on targets belonging to it. There is also the possibility that [this action] will develop into extensive ‘popular resistance’ aimed at attacking the foreign presence on Syrian soil, especially in the region east of the Euphrates… [The fact] that the rockets used in the attack had only a limited range, yet hit [the target] with confidence, reflects the accuracy of the information possessed by the Syrian army and its allies regarding the illegitimate U.S. bases, and their ability to use their weapons, [however] limited, to hit major targets… This is the first time the U.S. positions in Syria have been subjected to a real attack using rockets and cannon, and it poses a direct threat, for the first time, to the U.S. presence in the country. It seems that this attack by the resistance alliance, which was not announced in advance, was intended to convey a message to the new U.S. administration, which has not yet formulated its Syria policy – namely that the presence of the resistance axis in Syria and Iraq is legitimate and permanent, whereas the American presence is not. This bombardment is also proof of the operational ability of the resistance alliance to respond to any attack on its forces in the region, like the latest [U.S.] attack on the [Syria-Iraq] border.”
In another article, from July 14, amid the continued attacks on the U.S. bases, Mare’i wrote that this may be “a new phase, characterized by increased pressure on the U.S. to change its policy on Syria and end its occupation of large areas east of the Euphrates… These operations confounded the American soldiers and limited their movement, heralding a significant development in the level and form of the resistance activity. There will probably be further development in the coming period, to the extent of direct attacks on American patrols and even attacks on convoys carrying vehicles, ammunition and food across the border, based on the model of the resistance in Iraq.”