Iranian Proxies Scatter Ahead Of Looming U.S. Retaliation Strikes

Four days after a deadly drone attack on U.S. troops in Jordan, plans are leaking out about the expected American response, sending many of the intended targets scrambling for cover. 

“U.S. officials have confirmed to CBS News that plans have been approved for a series of strikes over a number of days against targets — including Iranian personnel and facilities — inside Iraq and Syria, the news outlet reported on Thursday

As each day passes since Sgt. William J. Rivers, Sgt. Kennedy L. Saunders and Sgt. Breonna A. Moffett were killed and more than 40 other soldier wounded at Tower 22 in Jordan, there’s been more time for potential targets to prepare.

Three U.S. troops were killed and more than two dozen injured by an Iranian-backed militia drone strike on Tower 22.
On Jan. 28, three U.S. Army soldiers were killed and more than 40 wounded by a drone that hit Tower 22 in Jordan. (Google Earth image) Google Earth image

A “state of maximum alert has continued since the day before yesterday in all Iranian militias positions in the Syrian desert and Deir Ezzor, specifically in positions in Al-Bokamal, Al-Mazarea area in Al-Mayadeen and Palmyra countryside area, which includes forces from the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported on Thursday.

The leaders of the pro-Iranian groups “took measures to reduce human losses in the event of the expected American targeting of their positions in Syria, as they sent their leaders to the governorates of Damascus and Homs,” SOHR reported. They “also informed the leadership of the Iranian militias in Syria… to stay at home and maintain contact with the leaders of the groups, while It was content with guarding the sites, in anticipation of expected American strikes in the coming hours, amid great confusion in its ranks.”

Following statements from the Iraq-based, Iranian-backed Khataib Hezbollah militant group about a pause in attacks on U.S. forces, the leadership of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) “instructed its fighting groups in Syria, specifically in Deir Ezzor to stop their military activities against American bases in Syria,” SOHR reported.

Against this backdrop, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was asked Thursday whether the U.S. is “telegraphing” how it will hit back.

“In terms of telegraphing about strikes and whether or not people leave or would have left, you know, I won’t speculate on any of that,” Austin told reporters, including from The War Zone, Thursday morning. “I will just tell you that we will have a multi-tiered response, and we have the ability to respond a number of times, depending on what the situation is.”

Austin also fielded a question about why, after more than 160 attacks by Iranian proxies against American troops in Iraq and Syria, the U.S. waited until its service members were killed to escalate a response.

He pointed out that there have been a number of U.S. strikes against Iranian proxy targets in Iraq and Syria, the aftermath of one them you can see in this video below.

“So this particular attack was egregious, in that the attack was on the sleeping area of one our bases,” said Austin. “And again, we have Khataib Hezbollah and other elements continue to attack our troops and it’s time to take away even more capability than we’ve taken in the past.”

Iranian leaders have insisted they had no role in the Jordan attack and have threatened to retaliate if attacked. There have even been questions raised by U.S. intelligence about how much control Tehran actually has over these groups.

Austin said it didn’t matter if Iran knew.

“These are Iranian proxy groups. And how much Iran knew or didn’t know, we don’t know, but it really doesn’t matter because Iran sponsors these groups, it funds these groups, and in some cases, it trains these groups on advanced conventional weapons,” he explained. Without that facilitation, these kinds of things don’t happen.”

The defense secretary scoffed at the idea the pending U.S. response to the Tower 22 attack was an escalation.

“We’ve not described what our response is going to be,” he said. “But we look to hold the people that are responsible for this accountable. And we also look to make sure that we continue to take away capability from them as we go forward.”

“I don’t think the adversaries are of a one-and-done mindset,” he added. “And so they have a lot of capability, I have a lot more. And as I said earlier, we’re going to do what’s necessary to protect our troops and our interests.”

On Wednesday, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters that the looming response to the Tower 22 attack would be undertaken by the U.S. alone.

Those attacks could come at any time now and, as Austin said, they will be carried out not just once, but repeatedly over an unspecified period of time if needed. However, it remains to be seen how effective the strikes could be in regard to deterring future attacks. Similar questions apply to how much a U.S. operation can degrade the capabilities behind these attacks as Iranian-backed militant groups and the IRGC have had days to prepare for them.

Austin’s briefing, his first since returning to the Pentagon after being hospitalized due to complications from prostate cancer surgery, came on a busy day for U.S. forces in the Middle East. Houthi forces in Yemen have shown no sign of curtailing their anti-ship attacks, with today being a particularly dangerous in the region surrounding the Bab el-Mandeb strait.

U.S. Central Command said that its forces destroyed a Houthi uncrewed surface vessel (USV) heading toward international shipping lanes “and determined it presented an imminent threat to merchant vessels and the U.S. Navy vessels in the region.”

“U.S. Forces subsequently struck and destroyed the USV in self-defense resulting in significant secondary explosions,” the command said on Twitter. “There were no injuries or damage reported.”

This marks the first time the U.S. has destroyed a Houthi USV. As we previously reported, the Houthis, who actually pioneered the operational use of kamikaze USVs years ago, first tried to attack with one during this conflict last month. 

Earlier on Thursday, at about 5 a.m. local time, CENTCOM forces “engaged and shot down” a drone over the Gulf of Aden. “There were no injuries or damage reported.”

Then, at approximately 12:45 p.m. local time, “two anti-ship ballistic missile were launched from Houthi-controlled areas in Yemen likely towards the M/V Koi in the Red Sea,” the command said. “The missiles impacted in the water without hitting the ship. There were no injuries and no damage reported to the M/V Koi or coalition ships in the area.” 

All these incidents follow an extremely close call on Tuesday, when the Arleigh Burke class guided missile destroyer USS Gravely had to use its its Mark 15 Phalanx Close-In Weapon System (CIWS) against an incoming threat, CNN reported. You can read more about the significance of a missile getting within a mile of a U.S. Navy warship in our story here.

This story is rapidly advancing. With U.S. strikes looming, the next few days are likely to be extremely violent in the region.

Contact the author:

Howard Altman Avatar

Howard Altman

Senior Staff Writer

Howard is a Senior Staff Writer for The War Zone, and a former Senior Managing Editor for Military Times. Prior to this, he covered military affairs for the Tampa Bay Times as a Senior Writer. Howard's work has appeared in various publications including Yahoo News, RealClearDefense, and Air Force Times.