West Asia

Biden bombs Syria, says it was in ‘self-defence’

Print edition : April 09, 2021

The aftermath of the February 15 rocket attack in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region, Iraq. Photo: SAFIN HAMED/AFP

A satellite image of the area at the Syria-Iraq border that bore the brunt of the U.S. airstrikes on February 25. Photo: AFP/Satellite image © 2021Maxar Technologies

Pope Francis at the ruins of the Syriac Catholic Church of Immaculate Conception (al-Tahira-l-Kubra) in Mosul on March 7. Photo: Vincenzo PINTO/AFP

Even as U.S. forces routinely targeted militants in Yemen, Somalia and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, President Biden ordered a military strike in eastern Syria in clear violation of international law, signalling a continuation of his predecessor Donald Trump’s militaristic policies in the region.

As the new administration in Washington settles in, signs are that it intends to carry on with most of the policies that were pursued by the Donald Trump administration in West Asia. There is very little progress as far as the nuclear deal between the United States and Iran is concerned. President Joe Biden had made the speedy revival of the nuclear deal a priority while on the campaign trail. His administration, packed as it is with officials sympathetic to Israel and tied to the powerful Zionist lobby in the country, has not uttered a single word of criticism against the Jewish state as it continues with its colonising spree. Vice President Kamala Harris conveyed to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in early March that the U.S. remains opposed to the investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC) into possible Israeli war crimes in the occupied Palestinian territories. She also re-assured Netanyahu on Washington’s “unwavering commitment to Israel’s security”.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration continues with the U.S. policies of dropping bombs and killing people in different parts of the world on a daily basis. Biden seems reluctant to order a full military exit from Afghanistan. U.S. forces continue to target militants in Yemen, Somalia and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Most of the U.S. military strikes were unreported, according to a recent article in the Military Times. New research by the anti-war group, CodePink, has revealed that the U.S. has dropped at least 3,26,000 bombs on countries in West Asia and North Africa since 2001. This amounts to an average of 46 bombs dropped each day over the last 20 years.

Biden’s first attack

On February 25, Biden ordered a U.S. military strike in eastern Syria in clear violation of international law, signalling a continuation of the Trump administration’s militaristic policies in the region. Seven 500-pound bombs were dropped on the Iraqi paramilitary forces who were reportedly staying in buildings just across the Iraqi border. Iraqi opposition and militia leaders claim that the strikes actually occurred on Iraqi soil. Anyway, it was the first military attack that Biden had sanctioned after being sworn into office and the first U.S. aerial attack on the Syria-Iraq border since December 2019.

The Syrian government denounced the U.S. attack as an act of “cowardly aggression” that would “lead to consequences that will escalate the situation in the region”. It accused the Biden administration of following “the law of the jungle”. The U.S. already occupies one-third of Syrian territory on the pretext of providing military cover for the separatist Kurds. The area includes the country’s oil-producing areas and rich agricultural regions.

Also read: Foreign policy challenges that U.S. President Joe Biden faces in Asia

Russia, China and Iran have also condemned the U.S. attack. The U.S. strike happened soon after the three countries had conducted joint military exercises in the Indian Ocean region. The only country which has openly supported the U.S. strikes is Israel, which has also been carrying out air attacks on targets in Syria without claiming responsibility.

Biden also faces strong domestic criticism for ordering the attack. Leading U.S. Congressmen have called for the repealing of the U.S. President’s war powers. Senators Tim Paine and Todd Young introduced a bipartisan legislation to repeal two U.S. laws introduced in 1991 and 2002 that gave the U.S. President unprecedented powers to use military force around the globe.

Claims of self-defence

Biden’s assertion that the strike in Syria was carried out in “self-defence” has been greeted with scepticism even within the U.S. Washington claimed that its latest missile strike near a border post was in retaliation for an attack on Erbil airport in northern Iraq by pro-Iranian Iraqi paramilitary forces in mid February. A U.S. military contractor and a civilian were killed in the attack. The airport hosts a U.S. military base which houses a significant number of the 2,500 U.S troops that remain in the country. The rest of the U.S. troops are located in two other Iraqi military bases. The regional government in Kurd-dominated northern Iraq has been allied with the U.S. for a long time. The Biden administration had chosen to target an area on the Iraq-Syria border in order to cushion the government in Baghdad from domestic criticism. Iraqi public opinion is overwhelmingly against the presence of U.S. troops in the country.

A spokesperson of the U.S. Defence Department said that the “proportionate military response was conducted” after “consultations with coalition partners”, meaning the government of Iraq. He said that the strikes were intended to send an “unambiguous message”, that President Biden would act to protect the U.S. military personnel in Iraq.

Iraqi militia groups have been regularly targeting U.S. bases in the country since the assassination of the charismatic Iranian army general Qassim Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, the leader of the most powerful Iraqi para military group, the Kataib Hezbollah, by the U.S. in January 2020. The U.S. bombing had also come in the wake of a rocket attack on the Green Zone in Baghdad where the largest U.S. embassy in the world is located. A militia group by the name of Awliya al Dam (Guardian of the Blood) claimed responsibility for the attack on Erbil airport, saying that it had done so to exact revenge for the assassinations of Soleimani and Muhandis. Days after the assassination of General Soleimani, Iran had launched a missile barrage against the U.S. military base in Ain al Assad, situated in Iraq’s Anbar province. The Trump administration had chosen not to respond to that attack despite over 100 American soldiers being injured. If the U.S. had retaliated, it could have led to another full-fledged war in the region.

Also read: New regime, old games: U.S. goes slow on restoring nuclear treaty with Iran

Syrian government sources told the media that at least 17 militia members were killed in the U.S. strike which they said occurred on their side of the border. A Kataib Hezbollah official, however, claimed that only one fighter was killed and that he belonged to the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), which is integrated with the Iraqi army. Kataib Hezbollah said that it maintained a presence at the border post, which was attacked, to keep a watch on the movement of the Daesh (Islamic State) fighters in the area and prevent their infiltration into Iraq. The Iraqi militias had played a key role in the defeat of the Daesh. The U.S. targeting of the PMU will only serve to strengthen the Daesh, which has recently started staging terror attack in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities.

The PMU also alleged that the Iraq government had provided intelligence inputs to the U.S. forces to carry out the attack. Iraq’s Foreign Minister, Fuad Hussein, had previously blamed groups styling themselves as “the resistance” for the regular targeting of U.S. military bases in the country. President Biden had spoken to the Iraqi Prime Minister, Mustafa al-Khadhimi, after the attack. The White House statement which followed said that the two leaders agreed “that those responsible for such attacks must be fully held to account”. The Pentagon press secretary stressed that U.S. military action was only undertaken to punish the perpetrators of rocket attacks on U.S. bases and was not meant to send a message to Iran.

The Biden administration is keen to ensure that Iran remains committed to the nuclear deal. Washington is yet to relax any of the draconian sanctions that the Trump administration had re-imposed after reneging on the nuclear deal. At the same time, the U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has repeatedly said that a re-negotiated nuclear agreement will have to be “longer and stronger”. Washington wants Teheran to end its support for its important non-state allies in the region, like the Hezbollah in Lebanon and the militias in Iraq and Syria which played a big role in the defeat of the Daesh and other jihadi forces. The Biden administration had formally notified the European Union (EU) about its intention to re-join the group in the ongoing efforts to revive the nuclear deal with Iran. Blinken described the 2015 nuclear deal as “a key achievement of multilateral diplomacy”.

Also read: U.S. foreign policy under Joe Biden will not be greatly different from that of the past

After the U.S. military strike, the Iraqi government scrambled to distance itself from its partners. Iraq’s Interior and Defence ministries were quick to issue statements denying that they had provided any information to the U.S. The Kataib Hezbollah has also blamed Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for complicity in the attack and has threatened retaliation against the two countries as well. In early March, the U.S. military base in Ain al-Assad was again targeted in a tit-for-tat attack. The attack came just a few days after the U..S. targeted the PMU near the Iraq-Syria border in eastern Syria.

Iraqi resistance groups have announced a new phase of struggle against the U.S. forces in Iraq, promising “confrontation with the occupiers until the liberation of Iraq”. The coordinating body of the Iraqi resistance forces issued a statement hailing the recent attacks on the U.S. forces. The statement said that the Iraqi people support their cause. The statement clarified that only the “occupation military forces” would be targeted and that their diplomatic missions would be exempted.

The Pope’s Iraq visit

Even as tensions were rising in the region, Pope Francis, the head of the Catholic Church, made a historic visit to Iraq in early March, the first Papal visit to a country where early Christianity has its roots. A diminishing Christian minority has been living perilously since the U.S. invasion of the country and the chaos that has ensued. Until the middle of the last century, Christians constituted more than 10 per cent of the country’s population. Today only around three per cent of the Christian population remains. They suffered the most when huge swathes of Iraq fell under the sway of the Daesh. The Pontiff visited the Christian towns in the Nineveh Plains that were the worst affected.

More importantly, Pope Francis had a meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani in the holy city of Najaf. The Ayatollah is the most senior Shia cleric in the country and someone who wields tremendous political and spiritual influence. Sistani had given his blessings to the creation of the PMUs to face up to the challenge posed by the Daesh. His role was important in getting the PMUs integrated into the Iraqi army.

Also read: ‘The end of the oil state era in West Asia is approaching fast’

The Ayatollah has spoken out strongly on the plight of the Palestinians and the “besieging of populations” through the imposition of sanctions. The Vatican, on the other hand, has been careful on its pronouncements on the Arab-Israel conflict and U.S, sanctions on countries such as Iran. The Shia religious leadership had conveyed to the Vatican leadership its disappointment on the failure of the Church to acknowledge the tremendous sacrifices the Shia militias had made in order to protect the Christian and the Yazidi communities in Iraq.

Pope Francis did meet with the Christian militia leader, Rayan al-Khildani, the head of the Chaldean Brigade. His unit was on the frontlines in the war against the Daesh but now he is on the U.S. government’s “terror list”. Ayatollah Sistani’s office described the meeting between the two spiritual leaders as “positive”. In a statement issued after the Pope’s visit. Sistani’s office said that Christians should live “like all Iraqis, in security and in peace and with full constitutional rights”. The statement emphasised the role that the Shia religious authority played in protecting them and other “who have suffered injustice and harm in the events of past years”.

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