Pro-Iranian militias test their reach with deadly drone attack on US forces in Jordan

Strike that killed three occurred in strategic corner near American zone of control in Syrian desert

US soldiers take part in a military exercise in Jordan in May 2017. The kingdom has a defence pact with the US and has several thousand American troops stationed in the country. AFP
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Iran’s militia allies expanded their reach and challenged the US with a deadly attack on American forces in Jordan at the weekend, observers said, possibly dragging the kingdom into an escalating regional conflict.

The drone attack in north-eastern Jordan, which killed three US soldiers, is the latest escalation linked to the war between Israel and Iran-backed militant group Hamas.

The war has broadened into a stand-off between Washington and Tehran and their allies across Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

The latest attack on Tower 22, a US base in Jordan near the border with Iraq and Syria, is the first major attack by pro-Iranian militias on the kingdom since armed groups supported by Tehran moved closer to the border four years ago, political analysts said.

Jordan is a key US ally and promotes itself as a bastion of stability in a volatile region.

Tehran has been pressuring the US via its proxies to withdraw its troops from Iraq and Syria, where almost all of the country's oilfields are situated in the American zone of control. Militia attacks on US forces in both countries have increased since the start of the Gaza War, as Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps vowed to help Hamas in its confrontation with Israel.

Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen have opened a further front with attacks on commercial ships in the Red Sea, prompting retaliatory US air strikes.

The latest attack on Jordan took place against this backdrop of tension and in a strategic area close to the Syrian border that is vital for the supply of the US exclusion zone in Syria's Tanf region.

The area has been the site of a low-level drugs war that has prompted Jordan to launch military operations against smugglers in regime-controlled areas in Syria where Iran has a strong influence.

'Strong message'

The militias ability to launch the attack shows Washington's "ineffectiveness" in protecting its troops, "let alone its allies", said Jordanian political researcher Hazem Ayyad.

The longer the war in Gaza goes on, Mr Ayyad said, the "door will open further for more escalation".

Further escalation would hamper the US and its allies' ability to "remould the security and political scene of the Middle East", a process that began with improvements in diplomatic ties between Israel and Arab countries in 2020, said the expert.

Iran had sent a "very strong message" that it is capable of expanding regional conflict and threatening Jordan, which hosts several thousand US troops who operate from dozens of bases in the kingdom.

In Beirut, a pro-Iranian source agreed with Mr Ayyad's assessment. He also said Israel's assassination of Iranian military officials in Syria over the past two months was a factor behind the escalation.

Another factor, the source said, is Tehran's desire to weaken Washington in negotiations with Baghdad over the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq.

The source cited the "intensity" of missile attacks by the Iran-backed Houthi militia in the Red Sea, and use of more advanced missiles by Hezbollah in a continuing border war of attrition with Israel, as "good examples" of Iran's goal to carefully widen the Gaza conflict across the region.

"Regional escalation has been expected and prepared for," the source said, referring to Hezbollah, which also oversees an array of local and foreign militias on behalf of Iran in Syria.

Tehran, through its UN mission, said it was not involved in the drone attack in north-eastern Jordan.

An official statement by the mission on Sunday said Iran had "nothing to do with the attack" but did not deny US accusations that militias allied to Tehran were behind it.

US President Joe Biden blamed Iran-backed groups for the unmanned aerial drone attack.

“We had a tough day last night in the Middle East," he said on Monday. "We lost three brave souls in an attack on one of our bases.

The US President said a response to the strike could be expected.

Border drug war

The border between Jordan and Syria has been scene of a drug war since 2018.

Waiel Olwan, senior fellow at the Turkey-based Jusoor Centre for Studies, said increased Jordanian anti-narcotics operations have formed "a threat to the Iranian spread in the area".

The vital support the US provides to the Jordanian military was a factor behind the Tower 22 attack, he said from Istanbul.

"It was expected," Mr Olwan said.

In 2018, a deal between the US, Israel and Russia resulted in the disintegration of western and Arab-backed rebels fighting President Bashar Al Assad in southern Syria, and the handing of the area to loyalist forces, including pro-Iranian armed groups.

The area, on the border with Jordan, has since become a main source of illicit drugs and weapon flows, prompting the kingdom to fortify its frontier defences, with US help.

But Iraqi security and political analyst Sarmad Al Bayatai said the attack on Tower 22 was solely "a message to the Americans that you are not safe in any place".

Sinan Mahmoud reporting from Baghdad. Mohamed Ali Harisi and Ismaeel Naar reporting from Abu Dhabi

Updated: January 30, 2024, 4:59 AM