President Joe Biden ordered a series of strikes on facilities used by Iran-backed militia groups in eastern Syria on Thursday night, in response to an attack in Jordan earlier this week that killed and injured U.S. service members.
The U.S. strikes were said to have “destroyed ammunition depots and other assets used by militant groups with links to Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)”, according to a statement from Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder.
Background on the Jordan Attack
On Tuesday, three U.S. service members were killed in an attack on the King Faisal Air Base in Jordan which hosts American forces. Several others were also wounded.
The attack involved explosives-laden drones that are believed to have been launched from Syria by militant groups with links to Iran. This was the first known fatal attack by Iranian proxies on a site with U.S. forces in Jordan.
A specialized Army special operations unit known as the 5th Special Forces Group has used the base to train Syrian opposition forces fighting against both government forces and extremist groups.
There are roughly 2,500 U.S. forces in Syria and neighboring Iraq to advise and assist local groups battling remaining Islamic State militants in the region. This includes about 900 U.S. troops in Syria.
President Biden condemned the attack in Jordan and promised to take action against those responsible.
“We will continue consulting closely with our Israeli allies on next steps… and we will not hesitate to act in Israel’s legitimate defense,” Biden vowed.
The strikes on Thursday night appeared to make good on that promise of retaliation. They targeted areas in Deir Ezzor, Syria that are under the control of Iran-linked militias which likely facilitated or actively participated in the Jordan attack.
A key militia that was reportedly struck is Kataib Hezbollah. This group is part of the state-sponsored Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq and has links to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
Calls for Stronger Response
However, some are saying that Biden’s limited strikes were not severe enough. Republican lawmakers and former Trump officials argue more aggressive action is needed against Iran.
“Appeasement toward Iran must end,” said former Trump national security adviser Robert O’Brien.
Others say Biden’s “hesitancy” shows weakness and emboldens U.S. adversaries like Iran in the region. They have called for strikes directly on Iranian soil.
“The Biden Administration has downplayed each Iranian attack over the past two years,” said Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI). “This weak and feckless Iran policy must end,” he urged.
But direct strikes on Iran could risk a serious escalation and distract from the ongoing war in Ukraine. There are concerns Iran could target Israel or activate sleeper cells to attack U.S. personnel and allies globally.
Others argue the U.S. response was proportionate to send a message, while avoiding uncontrolled regional conflagration. The strikes specifically focused on the capabilities of Iran’s proxies.
Retired Admiral James Stavridis, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, said further action could be warranted if Iran does not “cease and desist” the attacks through its proxies. But he did not advocate strikes on Iranian territory itself.
The Broader Context
Experts note that Iran has been emboldened by Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, which distracted U.S. attention from the Middle East.
There are also perceptions that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan projected weakness, that the Trump administration was too soft on Russia, and that Biden has not followed through on threats over Iran’s nuclear program.
Biden now faces pressure to project strength clearly in this latest provocation, while also managing relationships with allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia.
This all comes as the U.S. seeks to counter both Russian and Chinese influence globally. So there are risks with being perceived as disengaged or indifferent in the Middle East.
|King Faisal Air Base, Jordan
|January 31, 2023
|3 U.S. troops
|4 U.S. troops, 2 Jordanian citizens
|Iran proxy military facilities in Deir Ezzor, Syria
|Kataib Hezbollah and other Iran-backed militias
|Destruction of ammunition depots & other assets
What Comes Next
The concern now is whether the limited strikes will actually curb Iran’s behavior going forward. The attacks appeared primarily symbolic to save face.
Iran could still activate Hezbollah factions and covert proxies to target U.S. interests globally in retaliation. And the strikes did not degrade Iran’s broader capabilities including its ballistic missile arsenal.
Most experts believe Iran will likely continue its provocations through proxies even after these U.S. counterstrikes. There are calls for Biden to establish a diplomatic backchannel with Iran to deescalate tensions directly.
Others say further displays of U.S. deterrence and economic sanctions may be required to contain the threat from Iran and its proxies. Tougher stances from Arab allies could also compel Iran to back down.
For now Biden is under pressure both to avoid unnecessary wars in the Middle East and also project strength amidst growing security threats to U.S. personnel stationed abroad. His next moves in navigating this crisis will be crucial.
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