U.S. Bombers Strike, But Fail To Deter, The Iraqi Militants Operating At Tehran’s Behest

U.S. Bombers Strike, But Fail To Deter, The Iraqi Militants Operating At Tehran’s Behest


U.S. Bombers Strike, But Fail To Deter, The Iraqi Militants Operating At Tehran’s Behest 

Last weekend, U.S. Air Force heavy bombers and other aircraft conducted strikes against 85 targets in Iraq and Syria in response to a deadly drone strike against U.S. forces at Tower 22 in Jordan, near the border with Iraq and Syria, five days prior. The U.S. hit more targets than in previous rounds, however the strikes followed a similar model of avoiding Iranian assets. The Pentagon gave an upbeat assessment on the destruction of command nodes, logistics hubs, and weapons and ammunition depots, while adding that additional kinetic actions would be taken. U.S. officials also said that a majority of the militias’ capabilities remained intact. 

On February 7, 2024, the U.S. conducted a targeted drone strike that killed a senior commander of Kataib Hezbollah, Abu Baqir Al-Saadi, and a second commander from the group identified as Arkan Al-Elayawi, while they were driving in a car. This “dynamic” strike by the Reaper drone resembled the U.S. attack on January 4 which targeted and killed a senior PMF commander who was also a leader in the Iran-backed terrorist group Harakat Al-Nujaba. 

After claiming to pause its military activity since the Tower 22 attack, Kataib Hezbollah and other members of the ‘Islamic Resistance in Iraq’ will likely resume their attacks. Iran’s proxies and partners in the region read risk-aversion as an invitation to escalate. If and when the U.S. shows a willingness to escalate its own strikes in terms of quality of targets, Tehran’s calculus will shift as it wishes to avoid full-scale war with the U.S. that it would no doubt lose. 

Iraqi Prime Minister, Under Pressure from The U.S. and Iran, Welcomes Iranian Officials 

Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Al-Sudani has said to the U.S. in private he wishes to maintain strong bilateral relations. However, his government is under increased influence of Iran, which is acting through its proxies. Powerful elements in the PMF, such as Kataib Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl Al-Hak, and Badr Organization, balance domestic pressures but retain loyalty to Tehran. They are demanding a complete U.S. withdrawal, as they draw from a military budget supplemented by U.S. foreign military aid and other types of assistance and weapons deals. This provides the U.S. with leverage, though it’s unclear if and to what ends that leverage is applied. 

Sudani has condemned both the American airstrikes on Iraqi soil as well as Iranian missile strikes in Erbil, attempting to assert the sovereignty of the Iraqi government. Sudani has also welcomed Iranian officials to Iraq, including the head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Akbar Ahmadian, on February 5 and Quds Force commander, Brigadier General Esmail Qaani, last week, which underscores the balancing act he is looking to play. 

The Iraqi militias’ demands aligns with the official position of Sudani’s government, which initiated bilateral dialogue with the U.S. to negotiate the future of U.S. military presence in the country. Hadi Al-Ameri, the chief of Badr Organization and a leader of the political coalition of Iran-backed Iraqi militias known as the ‘Coordination Framework’ that dominates Iraq’s parliament, has said that “We do not believe in negotiations…and American forces must be removed immediately from Iraq.” Sudani’s office has also called for a quick U.S. withdrawal, but has reportedly not set a timeframe. 

Israel and the Palestinian Territories 

Israel Plans Rafah Offensive, While Continuing Operations In Khan Younis 

Israel is planning on advancing further south towards the Rafah bordering crossing with Egypt, a historical route for inbound weapons transfers. The IDF increased the tempo of airstrikes there on February 8, preparing for a ground offensive. This densely populated area is presumed to shelter Hamas fighters that fled for security amid the heavier bombing campaign in northern Gaza. The group is shielding itself in civilian areas to ensure high collateral damage. 

IDF Engages in Tunnel Warfare Operations To Root Out Hamas Leadership 

Tunnel operations will likely be an essential part of the IDF’s mission, as it seeks to capture or kill Hamas leaders, including Yahya Sinwar, Mohammed Deif, Marwan Issa, and others. The tunnels were built over the years since Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007, with cash and funding from abroad. Hundreds of millions of dollars from Iran also allowed the group to build up and enhance its rocket arsenal. 

Recent documentation discovered by the IDF shows a direct financing link between Hamas and Tehran. The documents reveal evidence of over $150 million in total transfers from Tehran to Sinwar, including $48 million in 2015, which is around the time Hamas and Tehran mended ties after Hamas broke with its benefactor over its brutal role in the Syrian Civil War. Nevertheless, the total funding throughout this time is unknown and likely much higher than these figures. Other estimates suggest that Iran has provided Hamas at least $100 million annually—even on one occasion offering to pay $30 million per month if Hamas was able to provide intelligence on Israel’s weaponry. 

On some accounts, the tunnels were deliberately constructed to protect Hamas leadership and extend the time needed to root them out in order for international pressure to build against the war. They can also be used for navigating the Strip in combat operations, command-and-control, cross-border infiltration, and arms smuggling. Hostages may be held in the tunnels in close proximity to leadership figures, raising the risk of friendly fire in these operations. 

Lebanon and Hezbollah 

Hezbollah Commander Neutralized In Apparent Israeli Drone Strike In Southern Lebanon As Tensions Rise And Full-Scale War Looms 

Tensions continued to flare at Israel’s northern border with Lebanon. The Israeli Air Force has conducted several airstrikes in southern Lebanon, including one on February 2 that hit a military complex near the village of Lida and a truck storing weapons near Shuba. Hezbollah has sent rockets and missiles into Israel on a daily basis, and its forces remain amassed near the border with Israel, which has caused hundreds of thousands to evacuate northern Israel. 

A Hezbollah missile attack on multiple villages in northern Israel on February 8 injured three IDF troops, one critically. That same day, a drone strike on a moving vehicle eliminated a Hezbollah commander, Abbas Al-Dabs, in Nabatieh, Lebanon. He was known to have worked with the IRGC in setting up air defense systems in Syria, according to Arabic media reports. In response, Hezbollah launched a barrage of 30 rockets at the Upper Galilee region of Israel. On February 9, as Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian landed in Lebanon where he will likely meet with Hezbollah chief, Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah continued firing large salvos into Israel, activating air defense batteries. 


U.S. Airstrikes In Syria Are Followed By A Deadly Attack On Al-Omar Oilfield 

Three days after the U.S. aerial assault in Iraq and Syria, an attack was carried out at the Al-Omar oilfield in Deir Ezzor, Syria, an area in which the U.S. military base Green Village is located. From this location, the U.S. engages in counterterrorism operations working with its Kurdish allies and prevents Assad and Iran from taking over strategic areas of the country. While there were no reported American injuries, six members of the U.S.-allied Kurdish militia, the Syrian Democratic Forces, were killed. The IRGC-aligned ‘Islamic Resistance in Iraq’ claimed credit for the drone strike, indicating that the U.S. airstrikes did not result in deterrence. 

Syrian regime-linked media claimed that its air defenses engaged several incoming drones, which it added were launched from Israel. A Syrian military official stated that the drones were sent from the occupied Golan Heights towards the capital, Damascus, not unlike claims made last week by the regime regarding a missile attack allegedly launched from the Golan Heights towards the Sayyida Zaynab shrine, a known IRGC and Hezbollah stronghold. Since December of last year, over a dozen IRGC personnel have been killed in Syria by Israel, including Quds Force Unit 2250 commander, Razi Mousavi, in charge of logistics; and a top intel commander in the Quds Force, Sadegh Omidzadeh. Additionally, dozens of Hezbollah operatives have been killed in apparent Israeli strikes in Syria since December. 

Israel’s “campaign between the wars” framework is focused on neutralizing threats in Syria and across the region. The U.S., for its part, is reticent to target Iran’s strategic interests, including those of the IRGC, because it fears escalation. While unconfirmed media reports indicated the U.S. killed a commander in the Fatemiyoun Brigade—a militia of Afghan recruits that is under the command of the IRGC and with a heavy presence in eastern Syria—the 85 targets hit last weekend, ranging from sites at Al-Mayadeen and Abu Kamal in Deir Ezzor, are unlikely to impact Tehran’s decision-making, because they avoided Iranian targets. As noted last week, the U.S. provided advanced warning through press leaks of the timing and location of the strikes to allow its foes to seek safety.