Iran is arming militants in Syria for a new phase of lethal attacks against US troops in the country, while also working with Russia on a broader strategy to drive Americans from the region, intelligence officials and leaked classified documents say.
Iran and its allies are building and training forces to use more powerful armor-piercing roadside bombs intended specifically to target US military vehicles and kill US personnel, according to classified intelligence reports obtained by The Washington Post. Such attacks would constitute an escalation of Iran’s long-running campaign of using proxy militias to launch rocket and drone strikes on US forces in Syria.
Drone attacks have wounded six US service members and killed a Defense Department contractor, and the new explosive devices could add to the toll of casualties, risking a wider military confrontation with Iran, current and former intelligence analysts and weapons experts say. The same type of weapon, called an explosively formed penetrator, was used by pro-Iranian insurgents in lethal attacks against American military convoys during the US occupation of Iraq.
Officials with Iran’s elite Quds Force unit directed and oversaw testing of one of the explosives, which reportedly sliced through a tank’s armored plating in a trial run in late January in Dumayr, east of Damascus, the Syrian capital, according to one of the intelligence reports. The document, part of the trove of classified materials leaked on the messaging platform Discord, appears to be based on intercepted communications by Syrian and Lebanese militants allied to Iran. One apparent attempt to use such devices against US forces was apparently thwarted in late February when three bombs were seized by US-allied Kurdish fighters in northeastern Syria, a second document states.
“There has been a sea change in their risk-acceptance in killing Americans in Syria,” said Michael Knights, an expert on Iranian-backed militia groups and a founder of the website Militia Spotlight. Noting the devastating toll exacted by these weapons during the Iraq War, he added: “This will definitely kill people. And they’re thinking very hard about how to do it.”
Another document in the trove describes a new and broader effort by Moscow, Damascus, and Tehran to oust the United States from Syria, a long-sought goal that could allow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to reclaim eastern provinces now controlled by Kurdish forces. The past three US administrations have maintained a small contingent of US troops in Syria - about 900 at any given time, augmented by hundreds more contractors - to prevent a resurgence by Islamic State militants in the country, thwart Iranian and Russian ambitions, and provide leverage for other strategic objectives.
US administrations have justified the deployment under the 2001 and 2002 Authorizations for Use of Military Force, which Congress passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to fight Al Qaeda. But the presence of US troops in Syria also creates opportunities for new conflict: Another document in the trove describes how Iran and allied militias were preparing to retaliate for Israeli strikes on their forces by hitting US bases in Syria.
There were no indications in the documents of direct Russian involvement in planning the bombing campaign. But the leaked documents point to a more active role by Moscow in the broader anti-US effort. Russia, like Iran, intervened militarily in Syria’s civil war to keep the Assad regime in power and now backs the government’s efforts to regain control of the entire country. In the months since the leaked documents were written, Russia has engaged in new provocations against US forces, including violating deconfliction agreements, flying over US bases, and buzzing U.S. aircraft.