The United States intended to send a strong message to Iran with strikes against pro-Tehran militia groups in Syria that had targeted American troops – while seeking to avoid a dangerous regional escalation amid Israel’s war with Hamas.
By targeting an ammunition and storage area on Thursday night US time, Washington sought to make clear that recent drone and rocket attacks that caused minor injuries to 21 US soldiers in Iraq and Syria will not go unanswered.
But the action is also risky because of soaring tensions as Israel pounds Gaza after October 7 terror attacks against Israeli civilians launched by Hamas – another Iran-allied group. That conflict has provoked fears of a regional war that could draw in Iran, Lebanon and other proxy groups.
President Joe Biden’s show of strength could set off its own cycle of consequences that could rock a region already on edge. While the US is underscoring that the strikes have nothing to do with the confrontation between Israel and Hamas, such distinctions may be blurred in Arab nations, where public fury is mounting over the deaths of Palestinian civilians in Israeli airstrikes in Gaza.
The US actions, which were “narrowly tailored in self-defense,” targeted two facilities linked to Iranian-backed militias in eastern Syria, according to a statement from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. The statement said the facilities have been used by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and affiliated groups.
“Iran wants to hide its hand and deny its role in these attacks against our forces. We will not let them,” Austin said.
Biden’s political flank
Biden has been under domestic political pressure to take a stand against Iranian proxies. Realistically, there was no option but to respond to an attack in which American soldiers were injured.
Still, the limited scale of the move is unlikely to placate Biden’s domestic critics, who have long accused him of being soft on Iran. Such criticism ratcheted up after the administration secured the freedom of five prisoners held by Iran last month in return for the transfer of $6 billion in frozen Iranian funds. The administration says the funds can only be used to buy humanitarian supplies but that has not spared Biden from Republican attacks over Hamas’ attack on Israel earlier this month.
The US airstrikes are also certain to, at the very least, heighten the rhetorical tensions between the US and Iran, which are already at alarming levels.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, for instance, warned the US that if Israel’s military operation against Hamas in Gaza following the group’s terror attacks doesn’t end, the United States will “not be spared from this fire.”
The US strikes came a day after Biden put Iran on notice about the activities of its militia during a press conference with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.
And Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday warned that while the US doesn’t seek conflict with Iran, it would act swiftly and decisively to respond to attacks by Iran or its proxies in the region.
US begins Middle East build-up
Ever since Israel started to respond to the Hamas attacks, there have been concerns in Washington that US interests in the region could be threatened.
Multiple US officials have told CNN that the US has intelligence that Iranian-backed militia groups are planning to ramp up attacks against American forces in the Middle East as Iran seeks to capitalize on the backlash in the region to US support for Israel.
The airstrikes followed another sign that the US, which has been seeking to disengage from the Middle East, is being drawn back into the region because of the danger to its ally Israel. The Pentagon announced earlier in the day that roughly 900 troops have been deployed or are deploying to the Middle East after a series of attacks on coalition bases that resulted in minor injuries for almost two dozen troops.
Biden had previously ordered the deployment of two aircraft carrier groups to the eastern Mediterranean in a show of deterrence to enemies of the US and Israel in the region.
Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said Thursday that between October 17 and 26, US and coalition forces were attacked “at least 12 separate times in Iraq, four separate times in Syria, by a mix of one-way attack drones and rockets.”
Some 21 US service members have received minor injuries as a result of attacks between October 17 and 18, CNN has reported. Of those, 19 have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury, Ryder said – 15 at al-Asad Air Base in Iraq, and four at al-Tanf Garrison in Syria.