With the Islamic State in retreat and anti-regime rebels losing ground, Iranian-backed armed groups in Syria are turning the focus of their militancy to U.S. troops on the ground.
Western military officials and independent analysts have long said it was only a matter of time before U.S. forces on the ground in Syria were targeted by militias. Now, this weekend’s U.S.-led airstrikes on alleged chemical weapons installations could hasten such attacks.
The militias have “always had this anti-American tone, but when you have one threat after another, you see they’re trying to send a specific message,” says Phillip Smyth, a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who has been tracking Iranian-backed militias in Syria.
This month, the Baqir Brigade, one of a number of Iranian-backed militias operating in Syria, announced on its Facebook page that it would begin attacks on U.S. military personnel.
“We in the Baqir Brigade leadership announce the good news of the launch of military and jihadi operations against the U.S. occupier and all those affiliated with it in Syria,” the militia said in an April 6 statement that was carried by multiple media outlets the following day. (Facebook appears to have shut down the page shortly afterward.)
In a report published last week, Smyth chronicled increasing militia hostility toward U.S. forces in northern Syria that goes beyond the normal invective. He noted that the Baqir Brigade declaration went beyond a statement to a call for jihad, or religiously sanctioned holy war. “The group itself cannot declare jihad — it has to come from their Iranian higher-ups,” he says.
The Baqir Brigade declaration was a “huge thing,” says Nawar Oliver, a military analyst at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, a think tank in Istanbul. “The announcement is not a joke. Eventually we might see action.”
The limited airstrikes overnight Friday damaged sites where, Western officials said, chemical weapons were allegedly produced or distributed and then used against civilians in rebel territories, including in the city of Douma on April 7. But the airstrikes also appear to have galvanized Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s supporters, who flooded streets in pro-regime demonstrations.
“What happened on Saturday morning will complicate the political solution,” Lebanese Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said in a speech Sunday. “It will inflame international relations … and it will delay Geneva talks if not destroy them.”
Armed groups in Syria with direct or suspected connections to Tehran have become increasingly vocal about their intention to target U.S. forces in Syria, mostly grouped in the country’s north and northeast. Newly emboldened pro-Iranian militias across the region have already shifted their focus from battling the Islamic State toward Washington and its allies.
“After the fight against the Islamic State, now what they say is, ‘We’re No. 1 against America, and everything else is No. 2,’” says Renad Mansour, an Iraqi-based researcher for Chatham House who has spoken with leaders and members of pro-Iranian militias. “In rhetorical terms, they’re making it clear Americans are their enemies. If a conflict heats up between the U.S. and Iran, these guys are the agents on the ground.”
Source » foreignpolicy