Did Iran Conduct the Abqaiq Attack with Russia’s Blessings?

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Although the Houthi rebels based in Yemen claimed the responsibility for the September 14 complex attack involving drones and cruise missiles on the Abqaiq petroleum facility and the Khurais oil field in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, and they have UAV-X drones having a range of 1,500 kilometers, Washington dismissed the possibility.

Instead, it accused Tehran of mounting the attack from Iran’s territory which is unlikely because Tehran would never leave behind smoking gun evidence because the Persian Gulf is monitored round the clock by American satellites and surveillance aircraft. The most likely suspects were Iran-backed militias in Iraq because 18 drones and 7 cruise missiles were launched from the north.

Quoting Iraqi intelligence officials, David Hearst reported [1] for the Middle East Eye a day after the September 14 attack that the attack was mounted by the Hashed al-Shabi militias from its bases in southern Iraq. What lends credence to the report is the fact that in the weeks preceding the attack, Washington had accused the Hashed al-Shabi militias of mounting another attack in eastern Saudi Arabia claimed by the Houthi rebels because the oil-rich Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia is nearer the Iraq border than to the Houthi stronghold in Saada, Yemen.

Moreover, weeks before the attack, the Iran-backed militias blamed [2] the US and Israel in August for airstrikes on their bases in Iraq targeting the missile storage facilities. The missiles were recently provided to the militias by Iran. It’s worth noting that 5,000 American troops and numerous aircraft are still deployed in Iraq, therefore the likely culprit targeting the Iran-backed militias in Iraq was Washington.

Besides planting limpet mines on the UAE’s oil tankers and shooting down an American Global Hawk surveillance drone, the September 14 attack on the Abqaiq petroleum facility was the third major attack against the US interests in the Persian Gulf. That the UAE had forewarning about imminent attacks is proved by the fact that weeks before the attacks, it had recalled forces from Yemen battling the Houthi rebels and redeployed them to man the UAE’s borders.

Nevertheless, a puerile prank like planting limpet mines on oil tankers can be overlooked but major provocations like downing a $200-million surveillance aircraft and mounting a drone and missile attack on the Abqaiq petroleum facility that crippled its oil-processing functions for weeks can have serious repercussions. Unless Iran got the green light to go ahead with the attacks from a major power that equals Washington’s military might, such confrontation would amount to a suicidal approach.

Therefore, the recent acts of subversion in the Persian Gulf should be assessed in the broader backdrop of the New Cold War that has begun after the Ukrainian crisis in 2014 when Russia occupied the Crimean peninsula and Washington imposed sanctions on Russian entities.

The Kremlin’s immediate response to the escalation by Washington was that it jumped into the fray in Syria in September 2015 when the militant proxies of Washington and its regional clients were on the verge of drawing a wedge between Damascus and the Alawite heartland of coastal Latakia, which could have led to the imminent downfall of the Assad government.

With the help of the Russian air power, the Shia-led government has since liberated most of Syria’s territory from the Sunni insurgents, excluding Idlib in the northwest occupied by the Turkish-backed jihadists and Deir al-Zor and the Kurdish-held areas in the east, thus inflicting a humiliating defeat on Washington and its militant proxies.

Several momentous events have taken place in the Syrian theater of proxy wars and on the global stage that have further exacerbated the New Cold War between Moscow and Washington:

On February 7, 2018, the US B-52 bombers and Apache helicopters struck a contingent of Syrian government troops and allied forces in Deir al-Zor province of eastern Syria that reportedly [3] killed and wounded scores of Russian military contractors working for the Russian private security firm, the Wagner Group.

The survivors described the bombing as an absolute massacre, and Moscow lost more Russian nationals in one day than it had lost throughout its more than two-year-long military campaign in support of the Syrian government since September 2015.

Washington’s objective in striking Russian contractors was that the US-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – which is mainly comprised of Kurdish YPG militias – had reportedly handed over the control of some areas east of the Euphrates River to Deir al-Zor Military Council (DMC), which is the Arab-led component of SDF, and had relocated several battalions of Kurdish YPG militias to Afrin and along Syria’s northern border with Turkey in order to defend the Kurdish-held areas against the onslaught of the Turkish armed forces and allied Syrian militant proxies during Ankara’s “Operation Olive Branch” in Syria’s northwest that lasted from January to March 2018.

Syrian forces with the backing of Russian contractors took advantage of the opportunity and crossed the Euphrates River to capture an oil refinery located to the east of the Euphrates River in the Kurdish-held area of Deir al-Zor.

The US Air Force responded with full force, knowing well the ragtag Arab component of SDF – mainly comprised of local Arab tribesmen and mercenaries to make the Kurdish-led SDF appear more representative and inclusive in outlook – was simply not a match for the superior training and arms of the Syrian troops and Russian military contractors, consequently causing a carnage in which scores of Russian nationals lost their lives.

A month after the massacre of Russian military contractors in Syria, on March 4, 2018, Sergei Skripal, a Russian double agent working for the British foreign intelligence service, and his daughter Yulia were found unconscious on a public bench outside a shopping center in Salisbury. A few months later, in July last year, a British woman, Dawn Sturgess, died after touching the container of the nerve agent that allegedly poisoned the Skripals.

In the case of the Skripals, Theresa May, then the prime minister of the United Kingdom, promptly accused Russia of attempted assassination and the British government concluded that Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a Moscow-made, military-grade nerve agent, Novichok.

Sergei Skripal was recruited by the British MI6 in 1995, and before his arrest in Russia in December 2004, he was alleged to have blown the cover of scores of Russian secret agents. He was released in a spy swap deal in 2010 and was allowed to settle in Salisbury. Both Sergei Skripal and his daughter have since recovered and were discharged from hospital in May last year.

Nevertheless, besides the killings of Russian contractors in Syria, another factor that might have prompted the Vladimir Putin government to escalate the conflict with the Western powers was that the Russian presidential elections were slated for March 18, 2018, which Putin was poised to win anyway but he won a resounding electoral victory with 77% vote by whipping up chauvinism of the Russian electorate in the aftermath of the war of words with the Western powers.

After the Salisbury poisonings in March last year, the US, UK and several European nations expelled scores of Russian diplomats and the Trump administration ordered the closure of the Russian consulate in Seattle. In a retaliatory move, Russia also expelled a similar number of American, British and European diplomats, and ordered the closure of American consulate in Saint Petersburg. The relations between Moscow and Western powers reached their lowest ebb since the break-up of the former Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War in December 1991.

Then, an alleged chemical weapons attack took place in Douma, Syria, on April 7, 2018, and Donald Trump ordered a cruise missile strike in Syria on April 14 last year in collaboration with the Theresa May government in the UK and the Emmanuel Macron administration in France. The strike took place little over a year after a similar cruise missile strike on al-Shayrat airfield on April 6, 2017, after an alleged chemical weapons attack in Khan Sheikhoun, though both cruise missile strikes were nothing more than a show of force.

It bears mentioning that the American air and missile strikes in Syria are not only illegal under the international law but are also unlawful according to the American laws. While striking the Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria, Washington availed itself of the war on terror provisions in the US laws, known as the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), but those laws do not give the president the power to order strikes against the Syrian government targets without the approval of the US Congress which has the sole authority to declare war.

The Intercept reported last year [4] that the Trump administration derived the authority to strike the Syrian government targets based on a “top secret” memorandum of the Office of Legal Counsel that even the US Congress couldn’t see. Complying with the norms of transparency and the rule of law were never the strong points of the American democracy but the Trump administration has done away even with the pretense of accountability and checks and balances.

The fact that out of 105 total cruise missiles deployed in the April 14, 2018, strikes against a military research facility in the Barzeh district of Damascus and two alleged chemical weapons storage facilities in Homs, 85 were launched by the US, 12 by the French and 8 by the UK aircrafts demonstrated the unified resolve of the Western powers against Russia in the aftermath of the Salisbury poisonings in the UK a month earlier.

Finally, over the years, Israel has not only provided medical aid and material support to the militant groups battling Damascus – particularly to various factions of the Free Syria Army (FSA) and al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate al-Nusra Front in Daraa and Quneitra bordering the Israel-occupied Golan Heights – but Israel’s air force has virtually played the role of the air force of Syrian militants and conducted hundreds of airstrikes in Syria during the eight-year conflict.

In an interview to New York Times [5] in January, Israel’s outgoing Chief of Staff Lt. General Gadi Eisenkot confessed that the Netanyahu government approved his shift in strategy in January 2017 to step up airstrikes in Syria. Consequently, more than 200 Israeli airstrikes were launched against the Syrian targets in 2017 and 2018, as revealed [6] by the Israeli Intelligence Minister Israel Katz in September last year.

In 2018 alone, Israel’s air force dropped 2,000 bombs in Syria. The purpose of Israeli airstrikes in Syria has been to degrade Iran’s guided missile technology provided to Damascus and its Lebanon-based proxy, Hezbollah, which poses an existential threat to Israel’s regional security.

Taking cover of the Israeli airstrikes, however, Washington has conducted several of its own airstrikes on targets in Syria and Iraq and blamed them on Israel. Besides the airstrikes on the missile storage facilities of Iran-backed militias in Iraq, it is suspected that the US could be behind a recent airstrike at the newly built Imam Ali military base in eastern Syria at al-Bukamal-Qaim border crossing alleged to be hosting the Iranian Quds Force operatives.

Though after Russia provided S-300 missile system to the Syrian military after a Russian surveillance aircraft was shot down during an Israeli incursion into the Syrian airspace, on September 18 last year, killing 15 Russians onboard, and then after the recent subversive events in the Persian Gulf threatening the global oil supply, the Israeli and American airstrikes in Syria have been significantly scaled down. In fact, the main objective of the attack on the Abqaiq petroleum facility was to send a clear signal to Washington and its regional clients that any further confrontation in the region will be met with befitting reprisals.


[1] Iranian drones launched from Iraq carried out attacks on Saudi oil plants:


[2] Iranian-backed militia blames US and Israel for attacks on bases in Iraq:


[3] Russian toll in Syria battle was 300 killed and wounded:


[4] Donald Trump ordered Syria strike based on a secret legal justification even Congress can’t see:


[5] An interview with Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, Israel’s chief of staff:


[6] Israel Katz: Israel conducted 200 airstrikes in Syria in 2017 and 2018:


Nauman Sadiq is an Islamabad-based attorney, columnist and geopolitical analyst focused on the politics of Af-Pak and Middle East regions, neocolonialism and petro-imperialism.




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