On Wednesday, March 11 a rocket attack killed several members of the US-led Coalition at Iraq's Camp Taji. Hours later people in Albukamal in Syria and across the border in Qaim, Iraq reported airstrikes.
They assumed the Americans were retaliating. The US had retaliated in December after Iranian-backed proxies killed a US contractor. It turns out the intensity of the airstrikes on the night of March 11 were unique and badly damaged the Iranian base.
On the morning of March 12, the wreckage was clear. At least 26 fighters from Iranian-backed units in Syria were dead. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights pointed a finger at the US and Western countries. The coalition said it wasn't them. The mystery was left to percolate for a week.
Now we know that the airstrikes that night badly damaged or destroyed 15 structures according to images from ImageSat International (ISI). The images, distributed on Wednesday, March 18 include an assessment about the "massive attack" which was designed to get Iran to "abandon this base and to send a clear message that the US will not tolerate the presence of IRGC Quds Force and its allies in this area."
The US has carried out airstrikes in the past in retaliation, as noted above, against targets in both Syria and Iraq. In those strikes on December 29, five targets were destroyed in Iraq and Syria. The US targeted Kataib Hezbollah, a pro-Iranian proxy.
However, the claim that the US ripped apart the Imam Ali base is complicated by the fact the US officially says it retaliated on March 13, hitting warehouses related to pro-Iranian groups in Iraq. Days later the US withdrew from a post near Qaim in Iraq.
The Imam Ali base has been hit numerous times in the past. In June 2018 airstrikes rained down on a Kataib Hezbollah headquarters near Albukamal. In September last year reports noted that a new Iranian base called "Imam Ali" was under intense Iranian construction. It was struck on September 8, 2019. Reports Iran was rebuilding parts of the base were published last November. In December more details emerged about Iran's role at the base. It was bombed on January 5, according to local reports. But Iran keeps building fortified warehouses and tunnels.
Now it has been bombed again. This is more "massive," says ISI, which produced satellite photos of it. Critical facilities, including a barracks, were destroyed. The attack did not destroy an underground tunnel but did destroy many warehouses. In a series of photos the destroyed warehouses can be seen in numerous parts of the compound. These are the most wide ranging airstrikes to have occurred at the Imam Ali complex, which stretches over several square miles.
Most Iranian sources, as well as pro-Iranian sources in Iraq and Syria, have remained quiet about the airstrikes. However they come amid tensions between Iranian-backed militias and the US.
The State Department has warned Iran and its proxies to stop messing with the Americans in Iraq. No more rocket attacks. Despite US warnings the pro-Iranian groups are strategizing about how to threaten the US and get US troops to leave Iraq.
Some voices believe it is best to let the US leave on its own, judging that US President Donald Trump wants to withdraw. The US repositioned forces last week amid the coronavirus pandemic. Some pro-Iranian groups believe this is a stage in withdrawal. But others want to strike harder, including Kataib Hezbollah and Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba.
The differences of views also relate to backing for a new prime minister-designate in Baghdad named Adnan Zurufi. The pro-Iranian factions, including Ammar al-Hakim and Hadi al-Amiri of the Fatah Alliance may prefer to politically maneuver the removal of the US. Others such as Muqtada al-Sadr also want to capitalize on local protests and anger at the US to get the Americans out. But the Hashd al-Shaabi or Popular Mobilization Units, which include the pro-Iranian armed groups, are looking for ways to harass the US.
Meanwhile at the border the Iranian weapons trafficking that runs through Qaim is one of Iran's main projects in the region. Iran has sent ballistic missiles to Iraq, according to reports, and sent drones and air defense to Syria. Imam Ali base is a key conduit for weapons that run to Iranian warehouses at bases such as T-4 in the desert on the way to Homs or Damascus.
Iran is now concerned that its facility, into which it invested what limited resources it had, has been eviscerated. The airstrikes remain hidden in the shadows, with no one wanting to take responsibility. Iraq's former prime minister blamed Israel for airstrikes in Iraq in July and August of last year. However Iran has remained quiet this time.
Seth Frantzman, a Middle East Forum writing fellow, is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (2019), op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post, and founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting & Analysis.