Last Wednesday, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps attacked the American military base at al-Tanf—on the Syria-Iraq-Jordan border—via its Shi’ite militia proxies inside Iraq. The base, which houses hundreds of U.S. soldiers, along with British and French intelligence personnel, was built for the purpose of fighting the Islamic State group, but now tracks Iranian efforts to establish a foothold in the area.
The base sustained considerable damage, but no casualties were reported. It’s possible that this was Iran’s intended goal from the start—to deliver a “soft” blow and send a warning. It is reminiscent of Israel’s approach in Syria, when it targets structures and equipment belonging to Iran and its proxies, but is careful not to kill Iranians.
Although Al-Tanf is a small base, it is a bone in Tehran’s throat. It sits on the linking point between Tehran and Beirut, Damascus and Baghdad. It is part of the land route earmarked by Iran to transfer weapons, missiles and fighters to Hezbollah and other loyalist forces in the Syrian arena.
The Americans are trying to prevent this from happening, albeit without tremendous determination or noteworthy success. Israel, too, in its own efforts to torpedo Iran’s machinations, has repeatedly attacked weapons warehouses and Shi’ite militia bases in the area.
Under normal circumstances, an attack by Iran or its proxies on an American base would spark significant commotion. Similar acts of aggression, including the attempted attack on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, prodded the U.S. to chop off the head of the Iranian snake, Qassem Soleimani, in January 2020.
At that time, however, the U.S. president was Donald Trump, who sought to curb Iran and push it back, not appease it. Trump also believed that forgiving or turning a blind eye to the Iranians’ endeavors wouldn’t lead to calm, but rather the complete opposite; it would only encourage them.
As for the current occupant of the White House, the Middle East is not at the top of his list of priorities, to say the least. Although the Biden administration has plenty of spare time to squabble with Israel over the opening of a Palestinian consulate in Jerusalem, it has neither the energy nor the will to confront Iran.
This message has been well understood by Tehran; hence the initiative and brazenness in attacking the Americans in Syria and in Iraq. The use of drones to attack the base at al-Tanf points to capabilities possessed only by Iran and its Shi’ite proxies in Iraq and Syria.
This attack was a test run, and it’s obvious that the complete lack of response from Washington will only encourage the Iranians to take matters up a notch and escalate their attacks. Ultimately, when the Americans will have had enough, similar to Afghanistan, they will evacuate al-Tanf, their remaining bases in Syria, followed by their bases in Iraq, as well.
The attack was also meant to send a clear message to Israel. Sans the ability to reach Israel itself, the Iranians chose to hit the U.S., which they perhaps view as weaker and more vulnerable, and less likely to retaliate. They hope that Washington will pressure Israel to rein in its activities in Syria, just as Israel attacks Syrian President Bashar Assad to pressure him to rein in the Iranians.
Last week’s incident, therefore, was a concerning and dangerous escalation, which portends a tense and even hot autumn in our region. The Iranians are still here, determined to persist on their path, and we can only assume that after Washington, Israel’s turn is next.