March 24, 2023 | Flash Brief

U.S. Air Strikes Hit Iranian Proxies in Syria After Iranian Drone Kills U.S. Contractor

March 24, 2023 | Flash Brief

U.S. Air Strikes Hit Iranian Proxies in Syria After Iranian Drone Kills U.S. Contractor

Latest Developments 

A drone attack on a U.S. military base in northeast Syria on Thursday resulted in the death of a U.S. contractor and the wounding of five American troops and another U.S. contractor. The U.S. intelligence community assessed the drone to be of Iranian origin. In response to the attack, Washington launched airstrikes against facilities used by militias affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). One local monitoring group reported four fatalities among the IRGC-aligned militants, while another group put the number at eight.

The New York Times reported on Friday that the primary air defense at the base, an Avenger missile system, was “not fully operational” at the time of the attack, experiencing an unexpected maintenance problem. U.S. officials also said Iran-backed militias launched 10 rockets at another U.S. base in the area on Friday, causing no casualties.

Testifying before Congress, U.S. Army General Michael Kurilla, commander of American forces in the region, reported that Iran has launched 78 attacks on U.S. positions in Syria since January 2021.               

Expert Analysis

“The frequency of attacks on U.S. targets demonstrates the failure of the Biden administration’s efforts to deter Tehran. Its rare counterstrikes impose limited costs that the IRGC and its proxies can easily bear. U.S. forces could inflict severe damage on the IRGC’s infrastructure in Syria, but the administration prefers to tolerate Iran’s attacks. The broader problem, of course, is that Biden refuses to give up on nuclear negotiations regardless, even if that means staying at the table while Iranian proxies attack U.S. troops and Tehran moves closer and closer to a nuclear weapons capability.” — David Adesnik, FDD Senior Fellow and Director of Research

“The administration should waste no time making sure every militia behind the reported 78 rocket or drone attacks on U.S. positions since 2021 is also subject to terrorism sanctions. There should be no daylight between militias that are struck versus militias that are sanctioned.” — Behnam Ben Taleblu, FDD Senior Fellow

Iran’s Enduring Support for the Syrian Regime

Iran continues to fund, train, and deploy Shiite militias to fight on behalf of the Bashar al-Assad regime. This includes major deployments by Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqi, Afghan, and Pakistani Shiite militias. There are no precise estimates, but the number of fighters likely exceeds 10,000 at any given time. Tehran has also dispatched IRGC officers to command and supervise the militias.

Iranian crude oil shipments are also essential to the survival of the Assad regime, along with flexible lines of credit. A senior Iranian lawmaker estimated Tehran had spent $20 billion to $30 billion propping up Assad.

Iran Ships Advanced Weapons to Hezbollah via Syria

Syria provides an indispensable corridor for the shipment of Iranian weapons to Lebanese Hezbollah, including precision-guided munitions (PGMs). With a sufficient number of PGMs, Hezbollah could strike both civilian and military targets in Israel with unprecedented accuracy. Given Israel’s size, such attacks would pose a strategic threat, potentially shutting down the economy and disrupting military operations.

Related Analysis

Breaking Precedent, Israel Provides Details of Syria Air Strike,” FDD Flash Brief

PGMs: Iran’s Precision-Guided Munitions Project in the Shadow of a Nuclear Deal,” by Jonathan Schanzer and Mark Dubowitz

The White House is Bending the Law on Syria Sanctions,” by David Adesnik


Hezbollah Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran-backed Terrorism Military and Political Power Syria U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy