In a day full of troubling firsts over battlefield Syria, which has included a US Navy fighter shooting down a Syrian attack jet, Iran has waded into the Syrian conflict in an entirely new and very concerning matter—by launching a ballistic missile bombardment on the long-contested city of Deir Ez-Zor in eastern Syria. The missiles were said to have been a retaliatory measure in response to an affiliate of the Islamic State's attack on Iran's parliament eleven days ago.
The missiles, which are said to be about four in number, were fired by Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps from western Iran. They supposedly struck extremist bases in and around the embattled city. Over the last couple of years, Deir Ez-Zor has been heavily bombarded by US and pro-Assad forces, including high altitude bombardment by Russian bombers—some of which flew from an airfield in western Iran for a period of time. It has also been the scene of highly controversial incidents where bombs landed on the wrong forces.
Today's strike could also be part of an emerging offensive by pro-Assad forces, one in which Iranian-backed Shiite militias are heavily involved, to take Deir Ez-Zor once and for all. Iran has long wanted a reliable land-route that links its country, through Iraq, and into western Syria. Taking Deir Ez-Zor could be a huge part of making that wish a reality. The city also has robust energy reserves and sits on the banks of the strategic Euphrates River.
Dier Ez-Zor is roughly 300 miles from the Iranian border. As such, depending on how far away from Iran's border with Iraq the missiles were fired, such a strike would require a short to medium-range ballistic missile. There have been reports that the weapons used were Shahab-3 ballistic missiles, but we will have to wait for confirmation on exactly which weapons were employed in the attack.
Video supposedly showing the Iranian missile launch. We cannot confirm the authenticity of these video:
The biggest part of this story is not the tactical outcome Iran was seeking by launching these weapons at a terrorist base or bases, but by the wider implications of Iran actually using their ballistic missiles operationally. According to Haaretz, this is the first time Iran has used such a capability since 1988, during the bloody Iran-Iraq war, and Iran's maturing ballistic missile program is maybe the top security issue in the region today outside of fighting the Islamic State.
Israel has traditionally been most concerned with the threat posed by Iran's ballistic missiles, and they have developed a highly complex defensive system to counter them. But now, Sunni Arab gulf states largely view Shiite Iran as a far bigger threat than Israel, and have been rushing to procure and deploy their own missile defenses at great cost. At the same time, the Trump administration has left the Iranian nuclear agreement it had touted as one of "the worst deals of all time" in place, but is now enacting extra sanctions as a response to Tehran's ongoing ballistic missile tests.
Keep in mind, all this has occurred while Iran's "ballistic missile genie" so to speak has remained in its metaphorical lamp. Now that the IRGC has shown that it is willing to use these missiles operationally, the whole strategic equation changes.
Regardless of the after-action analysis, what missiles were used, and what their reliability and accuracy was, Tehran's missile threat is now a very real and tangible thing. Expect US policy to change accordingly and the arsenals of US-allied states in the region to do so as well. If anything else, this attack was possibly the best advertisement for high-end theatre ballistic missile defense capabilities one can imagine.
Previous launch of a Shahab-3:
Advanced Iranian fighting capabilities seem to be showing up in Syria at an alarming level just in the past few weeks. During an aborted attack on a coalition-backed Syrian rebel base in At Tanf earlier in the month by pro-Assad Shiite militias, an armed Iranian drone roughly the size of a MQ-1 Predator appeared. This was a first, and the aircraft was subsequently shot down by a USAF F-15E. Now with ballistic missiles being used, it is another sign that Iran is willing to inject much more advanced weaponry into the Syrian conflict.
It is also worth addressing what exactly Iran got out of this strike. Ballistic missiles of this nature lack extreme accuracy and are only good against area targets, such as military outposts and compounds. It seems these types of targets are what Iran went after with their barrage. But their use of these missiles is likely more of a product of the strangely dissected airspace over Syria than anything else. Also, the targets near Deir Ez-Zor were likely just on the edge of the aging Iranian Air Force's tactical fighter range capabilities, although we have mused about the possibility of Iranian air power entering the Syrian conflict before. Russian aircraft could have struck the targets, but revenge isn't so sweet or politically attractive when it is exacted by an ally.
Iran's use of ballistic missiles accomplished two clear objectives. First it offered at least some sign that Iran was exacting vengeance for the rare terror attack on their parliament. This is a much needed event for Iran's ruling elite, and it will play well for domestic consumption. So the attack is largely a hollow political gesture more than a tactical one. Second, it showed the world Iran's missiles are not just an experiment or a propaganda tool, but that they are very real capability to be reckoned with, and Tehran is now apparently wiling to use them.
As more imagery has been released of the Iranian missile launch, it appears that at least one of the types used was a solid-fueled Zulfiqar short-range ballistic missile. The relatively new (unveiled in 2016) missile is supposed to have a range of 435 miles and can carry a sub-munition warhead ideal for area strikes on lightly armored material and personnel. It is also supposed to be highly accurate as far as Iranian ballistic missiles go. It's nose-section mounted control fins could potentially provide the missile with enhanced precision and greater survivability with ability to maneuver dynamically during the missile's terminal phase of flight.
These capabilities, along with the fact that it is a relatively new design, would have made the Zulfiqar an ideal missile choice for yesterday's strikes. The missiles were supposedly fired from the western Iranian city of Kermanshah, which would have meant they traveled 400 miles to Deir ez-Zor. This would have been near the very outward reaches of their claimed operational range.
We have yet to receive an official description from the U.S. or other regional powers as to what type of missiles are thought to have been used in the attack.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com