The Uneasy Detente with Iranian-Backed Militias May Be Ending

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On June 19, the Iraqi Resistance Coordination Committee said that it held an “extraordinary meeting” to discuss recent events and decided to “continue to strive for the country’s sovereignty,” indicating a possible consensus among the Iranian-backed militias to resume attacks on US forces in the region. The statement was posted to the Kaf Telegram channel associated with the media wing of the Islamic Resistance in Iraq.

The statement by the group, translated from Arabic, argued that the US ignored the opportunity the militias had offered to the government four months ago to set a timetable for the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq, and continued to “occupy our land, violate our skies, and control security and economic decisions.” The statement appears to be referring to the late January decision by Kataib Hezbollah to suspend hostilities against US forces. The Iraqi Resistance Coordination Committee that posted the statement is a coordinating body comprised of Iranian-backed Iraqi militias, including those that comprise the Islamic Resistance of Iraq.

Attacks On Hold Since January

Kataib Hezbollah has been pushing for a resumption of attacks on US forces since at least April 2024 after its resistance to Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force Commander Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani‘s order to stop attacks earlier this year when a US drone strike in Baghdad killed Kataib Hezbollah’s top commander for the group’s operations in Syria. The escalation between the US and the militias came after three US soldiers were killed and dozens more wounded in a drone attack on the military base known as Tower 22 near the border of Jordan and Syria.

In April, the group denied claims of resuming attacks on US bases after rocket attacks on US forces occurred near Rumayln in northeastern Syria. US forces at al-Asad Air Base in Iraq also repelled a drone attack that same month.

Earlier, in March, the House voted down legislation directing President Joe Biden to remove some 900 US troops from Syria. Opponents of the measure warned that a troop withdrawal would enable a dismantled Islamic State to reconstitute in Syria and pose a threat to the US allies and the homeland.

What If US Troops Withdraw from Syria?

Previous efforts to withdraw from Syria, such as the pullback from Kurdish-held areas in 2019, stoked fears of long-term instability, Turkish incursions, and a ceding of control of the area to Syrian government forces, or Russia.

In 2019, experts debated the impact a US troop withdrawal would have on the Islamic State. Although ISIS’s presence in Syria is relatively small and covert, the caliphate’s leadership still found a safe haven there. In February 2022, overall ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi was killed when he detonated a suicide vest during a pre-dawn US special forces raid in northwestern Syria.

Further, following the retreat of ISIS fighters during the fall of Baghuz and the destruction of the caliphate in early 2019, upwards of 11,000 veteran ISIS fighters ended up in a constellation of prisons in Kurdish territory. These prisons are overcrowded and poorly secured, raising the risk of a mass reconstitution of ISIS should the prisoners break free or be abandoned by the guards, who could be pulled north to defend the border in the event of a Turkish incursion.

“If the Kurds for some reason—for example, if they come under major Turkish attack or should the US withdraw from Syria—are no longer able to maintain control of those sites, ISIS would virtually overnight burst back onto the scene as a powerful force,” said Mona Yacoubian, a senior adviser at the US Institute of Peace. In January 2022, a car bomb exploded outside the Ghuwayran prison in Hasakah province, Syria, blasting a hole in the exterior wall. The attack triggered a 10-day battle that spilled into the surrounding streets of Hasakah, drew American and British ground and air forces back into combat, and served as a propaganda win for ISIS. By the time the prison was back under control, more than 500 people were dead, about three-quarters of them suspected militants, according to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Nearly 100 prisoners escaped, although most were eventually recaptured.

Satellite imagery of the Ghuwayran prison (also known as al-Sina’a prison) in al-Hasakah, Syria, eight days after the ISIS attack on the facility. (Maxar Technologies)

Turkey would be likely to feel the most exposed, especially if a US withdrawal was not coordinated with Ankara. Turkey probably would move to secure its border with the Kurdish-populated areas, which may result in a military operation like Operation Peace Spring, which Turkey justified as a means to remove Kurdish fighters. Turkey, a NATO ally of the US, views the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG)—a part of the SDF amalgamation supported by the US—as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which Turkey deems a terrorist organization.

Iran, however, would be best positioned to fill the void if US troops were to depart. If Iran’s network of proxies in the region could expand into the vacuum left by departing US troops, Iran could extend its land route from Tehran all the way to Beirut. In Kurdish-dominated areas, the YPG would be likely to attempt negotiations with Damascus in an attempt to gain official recognition and legitimization by the state.

Now, nearly three years after the fall of Kabul, the Biden administration is probably attempting to balance fears of being inextricably locked into rapidly devolving regional instability in the Middle East while desperate to avoid a repeat of the disastrous consequences of the hurried exit from Afghanistan in 2021.

Ellen Anevicius
Ellen Anevicius
Ellen Anevicius is the Editorial Operations Chief and Acting Middle East Desk Chief for Atlas News. She has a degree in Political Science from the University of Wisconsin. With extensive experience in South Asia and the Middle East, she brings nuanced analysis to the team and upholds the tenets of journalism across the newsroom - accuracy, integrity, and trusted editorial standards.