Behind the U.S. air strikes against Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps base Imam Ali, located in the Syrian-Iraqi border town of Abu Kamal, is the message that Washington holds Tehran responsible for attacks on U.S. positions in Erbil and north of Baghdad in recent weeks. The attacks on U.S. positions in Erbil were initiated by phantom militias that have emerged over the past year in Iraq. These phantom militias are a convenient tool for Tehran because Tehran has a shadier relationship with them, making it more difficult to hold Iran accountable. By comparison, if Tehran used some of its nearby formations (Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, Kata’ib Hezbollah or Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba), the Ayatollahs’ regime would not be able to hide the traces of its actions, as it has a clear logistical and organizational link with the Iraqi militias.
At the same time, however, this bombing is not an invitation by the United States to escalate tensions with Iran. The context of the strike testifies to this. First, it was relatively limited compared to the airstrikes that Israel carried out earlier this year, again in that region. Second, if they wanted to raise the stakes, the Americans would have struck at positions of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its proxy forces in Iraq, not in Syria. By comparison, the Donald Trump administration carried out several strikes on Iran’s assets in Iraq. Third, this attack on Abu Kamal seems more limited in scope than the one Trump ordered and the Pentagon carried out in late 2019. Fourth, the Joe Biden administration does not want the use of excessive force to destroy the possibility of returning to the negotiating table with the Iranians to renegotiate the nuclear deal.
For Washington’s part, this is a strike aimed at showing Iran that its mimicry with the phantom militias is not working. Abu Kamal has been used by several Shiite militias, the main one being Kata’ib Hezbollah, which, as mentioned, is very close to Tehran. It is suspected that it was mainly Kata’ib Hezbollah who “outsourced” the strike on the aforementioned American positions near Erbil and Baghdad to some of the phantom militias in Iraq. Perhaps because of this, Washington says it is convinced that its strike is aimed at those responsible for the reciprocal strike in Iraq against its positions. On the other hand, the dynamics among the contingent of pro-Iranian militias in Iraq show that Asai’b Ahl al-Haq objects the most seriously to Iran’s attempt to control tensions with the United States within reasonable limits.
The bombing of the border region between Syria and Iraq has double significance for Russia. Given that Moscow controls the airspace west of the Euphrates River, the activity of Israeli and American air forces in this region is creating discontent in Iran against Russia. On the other hand, in the context of growing competition between Moscow and Tehran for influence over the Bashar Assad regime, Russia tends to helpfully turn a blind eye to the Israeli air force’s activity in Syria. Moscow does not consider the excessive Iranian influence over Assad to be in Russia’s interests in the country.
Otherwise, Abu Kamal is a key artery through which the Shiite corridor from Iran to Lebanon passes. This route is of logistical importance to Tehran, as it is used by Iran to supply its militias in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon with a variety of weapons and ammunition. The latter means that this Iranian hub in Syrian territory is frequently the target of air strikes.