Top US general advocates targeting Iran’s IRGC Quds Force after Syria drone attack

WASHINGTON – The Pentagon’s top general publicly recommended a stronger US response targeting the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps following a spate of attacks on US bases in Syria last week.

US Army General Mark Milley told members of Congress on Tuesday that the US should focus “intensely” on the Quds Force to prevent future rocket and drone attacks by Iran-backed militias on US troops in Syria and Iraq.

“Some of these groups are much more aggressive than others,” Milley told members of the Senate Armed Services committee during a hearing.

“The Iranian government and the Supreme Leader are a complex, large organization [Ali Khamenei] maybe all decisions are being made or not,” said the senior general.

“We know that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard [Corps]and specifically their Quds Force – which is a designated terrorist organization – that’s the group we need to be targeting, and targeting them hard over time, and that’s exactly what we intend to do.”

The context: Milley’s comments came in response to a question from Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) about steps the U.S. can take to proactively deter future attacks.

Two Iranian-made drones crashed into a US base in Hasakah province in northeastern Syria last week, killing a contractor and wounding five other Americans, including four US troops.

The incident ended another deadly tit-for-tat between the US military and Iranian-backed militias in Syria, renewing questions among lawmakers on Capitol Hill about the White House’s legal authority to target Tehran’s proxies.

President Biden authorized airstrikes late last week against facilities used by Iran-backed militias in Syria’s eastern Deir Ezzor province in response to the Hasakah drone attack, citing presidential war powers under Article II of the Constitution of the US.

US warplanes bombed buildings that “included a headquarters element” and “storage sites where key munitions were being stored and other capabilities were being developed,” Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin told the Senate in a hearing with Milley Dé Tuesday.

“There were people in those facilities,” Austin confirmed. A senior US military official told Al-Monitor on Wednesday that the Pentagon’s latest estimate was that eight members of the Iranian-backed Syrian militia were killed in the US strikes.

US troops at bases in northeastern Syria were targeted by at least five additional barrages of rockets and drones late last week following Washington’s response, resulting in the injury of an additional US soldier, but refrained the White House from green lighting no more airwaves. .

President Biden declared during a trip to Canada last week that his government is not seeking conflict with Iran, but warned that American forces would “act strongly” to protect US citizens.

“We’re not going to stop,” Biden responded when asked if his administration should impose greater costs on Iran for such attacks.

Why it’s important: Milley’s comments represent an uptick in rhetoric, but whether they are indicative of actual US policy remains to be seen.

The top general — who serves as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as Biden’s top military adviser but is not in the chain of command — successfully lobbied the administration last year not to rescind the Trump-era designation of the IRGC’s Quds Force as his organization. terrorist.

But Milley walked back previous comments regarding the Iran-Russia war in Ukraine after speaking out against the administration’s intended messaging.

It was not yet clear what methods he meant the US should use to target the Quds Force, but a military official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the top general’s comments could be interpreted to mean lethal and non-lethal actions. -include fatalities.

Joseph Halstead, a spokesman for Milley’s office, told Al-Monitor on Wednesday, “The chairman’s statement speaks for itself.” A spokesman for the White House National Security Council did not immediately respond to Al-Monitor’s request for comment.

Prohibition and disclaimer: Last week’s deadly exchange was the fourth time Biden has authorized airstrikes against Iranian-backed militia sites since he took office in January 2021. Since then, 83 attacks have been launched by groups support from Iran – consisting mostly of small rocket and drone barrages – towards the US. troop positions in the Middle East, raising new doubts about whether the current US approach is working.

The top commander of US forces in the Middle East, US Army Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla, told House lawmakers earlier this month that Iran and its proxies in the region were not at risk.

Quds militia-backed forces in Syria “Behavior has become increasingly independent over time, especially since the targeted killing of Qassem Soleimani,” said Jonathan Lord, director of the Middle East security program at the Center for a New American Security, an opinion-based in Washington. tank.

“His representative, Ismail Ghani, has not shown the same ability to restrain them. It is becoming increasingly difficult to determine whether any particular attack by the militias in Syria is the result of them acting independently or with direction from Tehran,” Lord said

In contrast to the Trump administration – which demanded that the Pentagon provide plans to strike Iranian territory and assassinated Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani in early 2020 – the Biden administration has until recently opted for a more subtle approach to arrest the cycle of violence and prevent it from rising openly. conflict.

Earlier in his exchange with Sen. Rosen on Tuesday, Milley emphasized that US forces must rely on non-lethal means to thwart such attacks, including employing air defenses and working with forces pro-US local governments in Syria and Iraq.

The major general, however, also hinted at the use of covert options. “In the past we’ve done some things for those groups that aren’t necessarily on the front page of the paper,” Milley explained. “Therefore there are activities taking place that act as a proactive measure.”

“When we give an answer, we want to make sure … that we are going after the element that is responsible,” Austin said lawmakers during the hearing. “It takes a little time to develop an assignment.”

The third wheel: Pentagon officials have been increasingly wary in recent months that the impact of Russia’s war in Ukraine could shift the balance between the IRGC’s proxies in Syria and Israel’s covert campaign targeting them – and US troops could be caught in the middle. .

Biden administration officials insist that the 900 American troops remaining in Syria are there only to fight the remnants of the Islamic State, but the US presence also limits the geographic footprint of Iran-backed groups.

Tehran’s proxies launched barrages targeting US positions in an apparent response to past Israeli airstrikes, as Tel Aviv sought to breach the IRGC’s rear in northeastern Israel.

Last week’s drone attack on the US base at Rmelan, in Syria’s Hasakah province, came less than a week after renewed Israeli strikes on Iranian-linked targets at Syria’s Aleppo airport.

Iranian media reported that an alleged group calling itself Liwa al-Ghalibun, or the “Brigade of the Winners,” claimed responsibility for last week’s drone barrage. Similarly, anonymous groups that appear to represent the Iranian-backed resistance have claimed credit on social media for previous attacks, leading analysts to suspect they are lying against the IRGC.

Milley on Tuesday recommended declaring various Iranian-backed groups in Syria and Iraq to prevent further attacks. “The various Shia militia groups — we know who they are — [we should be] informing them that we will respond positively and strongly if they attack our troops,” he said.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry appeared on Tuesday to distance itself from the drone attack after warning last week that US troops would be targeted if Iranian personnel were attacked in Syria.

“In my opinion, Iran’s strategic objective is to drive the United States out of Iraq and Syria,” Milley told House lawmakers on Wednesday. The US intelligence community continues to believe that the IRGC is aiming its arc of influence at Shia proxy militias that stretch across Iraq and Syria into Lebanon, the top general added.

“It is clear that Israel is their priority, and they [Iran] I want to be the dominant power in the region,” said Milley.

Despite the risk, Biden administration officials continue to say both publicly and privately that the relatively small contingent of American troops will not leave Syria until the threat posed by the Islamic State group is eliminated.

US officials remain vague on what, if any, end-state they envision for the mission in Syria, but have said it cannot be achieved without returning thousands of foreign IS members and their relatives to their home countries on initially from indefinite detention in dispersed facilities. across northeastern Syria.

Meanwhile, American troops are experimenting with new methods to reduce the projectiles sent by Iranian proxies.

Milley, who visited Syria earlier this month to inspect the security measures of US troops, told lawmakers, “They have adequate force protection, in our view, in terms of rocket and missile defenses.”

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