Iran's strikes on Iraq and Syria 'message' to foes

Tehran fired ballistic missiles at houses in Kurdish region, claiming they were Mossad headquarters

The home of Iraqi Kurdish businessman Peshraw Dizayee, destroyed by an Iranian missile attack on Erbil, Iraq. Reuters
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Iran conducted its longest range ballistic missile attack on Monday night, destroying the home of a Kurdish businessman in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region.

Among five civilians killed in Erbil were Kurdish business mogul Peshraw Dizayee and his family, including his 11-month-old daughter.

Iran also hit targets in eastern Syria in a separate missile attack on the same night.

In both instances, Iran claimed the attacks were in response to a January 3 bombing in Kerman, Iran, which killed nearly 100 people at an event commemorating Iranian general Qassem Suleimani’s death in a 2020 US air strike near Baghdad.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei had vowed a “harsh response” to the attack, which was claimed by ISIS, but which Tehran has blamed on Israel and the US.

The missile strike on Erbil was the second Iranian attack on the city in recent years, after a strike in 2022, which Iran says was in response to an Israeli attack on its territory with Kurdish assistance. That strike destroyed the home of Baz Karim Barzanji, a businessman who, like Mr Dizayee, was close to Erbil's ruling Kurdish Democratic Party.

Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps said Monday night's attacks were also in response to an Israeli air strike, this time in Syria, which killed two IRGC members.

“In response to the recent evil acts of the Zionist regime in martyring IRGC and resistance commanders, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, with its nobility and intelligence, targeted and destroyed one of the main headquarters of Israel’s spying agency Mossad in Iraq’s Kurdistan region by firing ballistic missiles,” the IRGC said.

“This Mossad headquarters has been working for espionage operations and a centre for terror attacks planning in the region, especially against our beloved country,” it added.

Iran calls ISIS “mercenaries” of Israel, while also claiming that the Kurdish regional government based in Erbil hosts Mossad bases – although no evidence has ever been provided for the long-standing claims.

It has raised questions as to whether Monday's attacks were linked to the continuing regional escalation between Israel and Iran.

According to one expert, Israel should not be concerned with the relatively limited nature of Iran's latest response.

“Israel should be satisfied with this kind of limited reaction,” Raz Zimmt of Israeli think tank INSS told The National.

“Iran is retaliating for both the ISIS attack in Kerman [which Tehran linked to Israel] and recent assassinations attributed to Israel, including that of an Iranian commander in Syria.

“If all they did in response was launch missiles at what they describe as a Mossad base in Iraq and some ... inside Syria, then Israel can be satisfied.

“The strike shows Iran’s missiles capabilities but also the constraints it is working with.”

Gaza regional escalation

Israel's war in Gaza has threatened to spill over to a wider regional war pitting Iran and its allies against Israel, the US and their allies.

Iran supports Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, both of which are fighting the Israeli military.

It also backs the Houthi rebels in Yemen, who have clashed with the US-led maritime coalition in the Red Sea.

In Iraq and Syria, separate but related conflicts between Iran-backed militias and US allies were already simmering before the outbreak of the Gaza war, and have since escalated.

Iran-backed militias have intensified their attacks on American bases in both countries, prompting retaliatory US air strikes, while Israeli jets continue to strike Iran-linked targets in Syria.

Experts told The National the recent ballistic missiles are partly a demonstration of Iranian military power, showing how they can hit targets in Syria and Iraq, 1,200km away from Iran, simultaneously.

Iran is showing it can hit Israel with the strikes on groups in Idlib, said US defence analyst Mark Pyruz, a military historian focused on Iran, adding that Tehran had previously fired missiles at ISIS targets in Syria in 2017, but never at such a long range.

“There are so many parts of the Resistance currently at play during the Israeli Gaza campaign, as well as a number of recent terror incidents occurring inside Iran, Kerman and a string in Sistan and Baluchestan province, that multi-target demonstrative precision strikes may have been deemed in order,” he said.

Iran claimed the missiles used to attack Syria were Kheibar Shekan or “fortress breaker” missiles with a claimed range of 1,400km.

A US official on Tuesday said forces in the region had “tracked” the missiles to assess whether they were aimed at US bases.

While the specific tracking system was not mentioned, the US maintains a network of satellites called the Space-based Infrared System, which can detect missile launches, assess the type of missile used and intended target. The system was used successfully as an early warning system during a 2020 Iranian ballistic missile attack against US forces in Iraq.

“The attacks were demonstrative, as the intended audience may be more to the point, than the actual target values,” said Mr Pyruz. "Even if these strikes on targets in Syria turn out to be less operationally successful, recall the initial SSM [surface-to-surface missile] strikes during Operation Laylat Al Qadr in 2017 were followed the next year with indisputable success on Koya – confirming an IRGC-ASF precision strike capability."

He recalled missile strikes against ISIS in Syria, claimed by Iran in 2017 after an attack on an Iranian shrine. Those strikes prompted scepticism that Iran could accurately hit targets at long range, but this was dispelled following an extremely accurate missile attack on a Kurdish opposition group in Koya, Iraq, the following year.

Three years later, the world saw just how accurate Iranian ballistic missiles could be when Iran fired a volley of at least 12 ballistic missiles at a US base in Iraq after Maj Gen Suleimani’s death. Most of the missiles scored direct hits on the base, despite previous estimates of their accuracy being within hundreds of metres.

Kamaran Palani, a lecturer at Erbil’s Salahaddin University and author of Kurdistan’s De Facto Statehood, agreed with Mr Pyruz, saying the deadly strike on the Kurdish region was intended to demonstrate Iran's military power. He said Iran has no basis to claim Mossad are operating in the region.

“In terms of the reason behind the attack, there is no main reason behind the fact that Kurdistan's Erbil is an easy target for Iran. The fact that they have not targeted American facilities shows that the main objective is to create a show and send a message that they are active across the fronts,” he said.

“Erbil is facing a deep sense of insecurity, given the reluctance of the US support, and the increasing, diverse and multiple pressures of Iran and its proxies in Iraq as well as the Iraqi government.”

Updated: January 17, 2024, 6:02 AM