Following reports of anti-aircraft batteries countering enemy warplanes in eastern Homs province, the Syrian Defense Ministry stated Tuesday that “Israeli planes conducted a new attack on the T-4 Airport from the direction of Al-Tanf area,” where the U.S. controls a roughly 34-mile deconfliction zone. The Syrian military said its “air defenses engaged the enemy missiles and dropped a number of them, while four missiles reached their target,” leading only to “material” damage.
Israel has yet to claim responsibility for the attack, but has deliberately neither confirmed nor denied most of its operations in Syria and neighboring Iraq, both of which hosted Shiite Muslim militias aligned with Iran. These groups have expressed hostility toward Israel, as well as Saudi Arabia and the United States, which their fighters increasingly saw as an occupying force in the region.
Across the border in Iraq, another yet unclaimed attack struck a military facility Tuesday. The Iraqi military’s Security Media Cell reported earlier that “the Al-Taji military training camp north of Baghdad was targeted by Katyusha rockets, without significant losses.”
“No Coalition troops were affected by this small attack at Taji Base,” U.S. Army Colonel Myles Caggins III, spokesperson for the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), said in a statement.
Though no party has claimed responsibility for either attack, the two incidents fit a growing pattern of hostilities witnessed in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. and Iran have long been involved in extraterritorial operations across the Middle East and, while both saw launched campaigns to battle ISIS in 2014, the two rivals and their respective allies have since regarded one another as presenting the top terrorist threat.
The U.S. previously faced off with Shiite Muslim militias following its 2003 invasion of Iraq, a move that overthrew longtime leader Saddam Hussein and stirred a Sunni Muslim insurgency led first by Al-Qaeda and, later, ISIS. The U.S. withdrew in 2011 but returned with an international coalition in 2014 as Iran helped to establish a powerful collective of militias known as Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces.
Also in 2011, the U.S. first got involved in Syria by joining regional allies in backing a rebel and jihadi uprising against the government, an ally of Iran and Russia. An increasingly Islamist opposition made initial gains, but Washington ultimately shifted gears toward supporting the mostly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces in 2015, around the same time that Moscow joined Tehran in backing Damascus.
The U.S. and Iran’s regional rivalry dates back decades but was renewed in 2018 with President Donald Trump’s decision to leave a 2015 multi-national nuclear deal and impose heavy sanctions on the Islamic Republic. Since then, unclaimed rocket attacks are among the many operations that Washington has blamed on Tehran.
One such Katyusha attack last month helped to set off a new round of major escalations after it killed a Pentagon contractor. The U.S. responded with a series of Iraq-Syria border strikes that killed up to 27 people at positions held by the Kataib Hezbollah, an Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces and led to violent New Year’s protests at Washington’s embassy in Baghdad.
Just a day after the demonstrations subsided, the U.S. assassinated Iranian Revolutionary Guard Quds Force commander Major General Qassem Soleimani, Popular Mobilization Forces deputy chairman Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and other members of their entourage near Baghdad International Airport. The shocking move led mostly Shiite Muslim Iraqi lawmakers to successfully vote for the withdrawal of U.S. forces and an Iranian missile attack on two Iraqi bases housing U.S. and allied troops.
The Trump administration has so far responded only with stronger sanctions, but U.S. officials have threatened further action as rocket attacks against Iraqi facilities housing U.S. and other foreign personnel have persisted.
In Syria, Assad recently received a boost of international support last week in the form of a visit from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who appeared to arrive at the same international airport occasionally targeted by Israel. During his visit, which came amid Syrian protests against Soleimani’s killing, the Russian leader vowed to continue to support the Syrian military’s campaign to retake the entire country.
Hours before Tuesday’s strikes at T-4, Syrian Defense Minister Ali Ayoub presented his Iranian counterpart Amir Hatami with a posthumous award for Soleimani on behalf of Assad.