Originally published under the headline "Strike Shows Middle East That Borders Don't Matter"
On September 22, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps fired six ballistic missiles at areas in Syria "east of the Euphrates" in retaliation for an attack on them in Ahvaz.
The attack was a major escalation and showed Iran's reach throughout the region. It also showed that Tehran is willing to strike wherever it pleases and knows that air defense systems in Iraq and eastern Syria will not interdict it.
On Monday, Iranian media said the IRGC's Aerospace Force had fired missiles at terrorists it blames for the Ahvaz attack. IRGC members painted "Death to America," "Death to Israel," and "Death to al-Saud," (a reference to Saudi Arabia) on the missiles.
The launch comes after Iran had blamed Washington and Riyadh for the Ahvaz attack, claiming that they support groups in southwest Iran who oppose the regime. The attack was initially claimed by a local Arab group, but Islamic State later took responsibility.
Iran's statement on Monday left unclear who was being targeted by the attack in Al-Bu- kamal, a Syrian city on the Euphrates near the Iraqi border. Tehran pointed at "Takfiri terrorists," which likely means ISIS, but could refer to other groups.
To fire the missiles over Iraqi airspace, Iran must have coordinated with Baghdad. The use of Iraqi airspace twice by Iranian ballistic missiles points to this coordination.
However, it does not appear that Baghdad warned air traffic of the missile firings because major carriers were traversing Iraqi skies during the launch. A survey of air traffic at the time shows only one flight – Syria Air 422 – diverting at 2 a.m. when the missiles were fired. The US coalition operating in Iraq and Syria should also have been notified via Baghdad, but their spokesman says they received "no notice."
The target of the missiles in the eastern Euphrates area would have been close to US forces and their Syrian Democratic Forces partners. This posed a threat.
Iran missile strike against terrorists in eastern Syria. It seems, that were used Qiam and Zolfaghar short-range ballistic missiles. pic.twitter.com/mBo9vduhnU— Yuri Lyamin (@imp_navigator) October 1, 2018
"Iranian forces did conduct no-notice strikes last night and we see open source reports stating they were targeting militants [Iran] blamed for the recent attack on an Iranian military parade in the Middle Euphrates River Valley. At this time, the coalition is still assessing if any damage occurred and [whether] coalition forces were in danger," Sean Ryan, US spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, told The Jerusalem Post.
The targeting by Iran of ISIS in Syria is a major escalation, primarily because the missiles both overflew Iraq and landed near coalition forces. Iran is an ally of Syria and has warm relations with Iraq. This shows how Tehran's arc of influence stretches across these states and how the IRGC does not see them as having borders, but rather encompassing an area in which it can operate freely.
The ballistic missile strike comes in the wake of Iran's claims at the United Nations General Assembly that the US is isolated, and that Iran is the responsible player working with the international community. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said that the US administration was engaged in "destructive unilateralism" and was a "rogue administration" with a "commitment to destabilizing the international system."
However, the IRGC has exploited instability in the Middle East in order to fire its ballistic missiles over Iraq and into Syria. It received little push back after targeting Kurdish groups in northern Iraq in early September and it expects to receive no push back this time either. Members of the international community would find it difficult to condemn the missile strike since it was targeting ISIS, which they are also fighting.
But the slogans "Death to America," "Death to Israel" and "Death to al-Saud" point to a goal that is more than just targeting ISIS. That air traffic over Iraq was not warned points to reckless behavior by the IRGC.
This is the larger message of the ballistic missile strike. It shows that Iran feels free and able to target Israel, the US, or Saudi Arabia when the time comes. It is practicing this by using its missiles on ISIS and Kurdish opposition groups.
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.