The Middle East is on edge after a rapid series of developments over the past week. Tensions between the United States and Iran have skyrocketed following an unprecedented drone attack on a joint US-Jordanian base that killed and injured American troops. The Biden administration has responded forcefully with successive rounds of airstrikes targeting Iran’s regional network of proxies across Syria and Iraq, but threats and attacks continue unabated. As both sides trade blows, the risk of miscalculation and uncontrolled escalation looms large.
Drone Strike Kills and Injures US Soldiers in Jordan
On January 26th, a drone strike hit the King Faisal Air Base in Jordan, known as “Tower 22”, killing 3 members of the Arizona Army National Guard and injuring 4 others. The base has served as a launching point for US operations against ISIS over the past few years.
Initially the drone was thought to be an errant US or Jordanian unmanned aerial vehicle, but follow-up Pentagon investigations determined the drone was likely Iranian-made and operated by one of the network of Shia militias sponsored by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. These groups have been increasingly targeting US positions following Israeli airstrikes on Iranian interests in Syria.
While waves of Iranian ballistic missile and drone attacks have bombarded US bases and allies in the region for years, this was the first documented killing of American troops. As such, pressure mounted rapidly for a forceful response amidst grief over the killed soldiers and outrage at Iranian aggression.
Biden Orders Waves of Retaliatory Airstrikes
In the days following the deadly drone strike, President Biden ordered three rounds of airstrikes targeting facilities used by Iran-backed militias in eastern Syria and western Iraq.
The initial strikes on February 3rd hit weapons depots and logistics complexes along the Iraq-Syria border using F-15 Eagles, significantly damaging militia capabilities. Follow-up strikes on the next two days targeted militants moving newly arriving weapons from Iran into Iraq for potential attacks. Several militants were reportedly killed.
Weaponry and militants targeted were linked to Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, Kata’ib Hezbollah, and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, three of the most prominent Iraqi Shia militias sponsored by Iran’s al-Quds force. Syria also condemned the US violation of its territorial sovereignty.
The successive waves of airstrikes mark some of the largest US attacks directly targeting Iran’s “Axis of Resistance” network of partner militias since the assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in 2020 brought the US and Iran close to war.
Militant Threats and Attacks Continue After US Airstrikes
However, the US show of force does not yet appear to have deterred Iran’s militant partners to any significant degree. Iranian state media responded aggressively, with leaders promising “We will not hesitate to respond to these attacks. I warn the US not to test Iran’s decisive response.”
On February 5th, three rockets targeted US forces at the Green Zone Diplomatic Center in Baghdad and Coalition logistics convoys north of the city. Another drone attack targeted the Tanf garrison near the triborder area with Syria and Jordan. No casualties were reported in these attacks, but they demonstrate the lingering threat to US troops in theater.
Pentagon officials stated they “remain postured and prepared to carry out additional strikes as necessary in coordination with our partners to ensure the safety and security of US and partner forces”. However, with over 50,000 US troops deployed across dozens of bases flanked by heavily armed militias sponsored by Iran, persistent attacks are likely inevitable.
Global and Domestic Reaction Mixed
Globally, responses to the US airstrikes have been mixed. US allies like the UK, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have strongly backed the strikes. However, adversaries like China, Russia and Iran itself have accused Biden of illegally violating state sovereignty and hypocritically breaching international norms on use of force.
Domestically, congressional reactions were also split, generally along partisan lines. Democratic leaders from Congress and the Senate Foreign Relations committees released statements supporting Biden’s “proportional responses”. Conversely, several Republican lawmakers accused Biden of overreach and strategic confusion.
They highlighted his failure to attend the dignified transfer of soldier remains from Jordan back to the US or properly recognize their combat services with appropriate awards. Some also accused Biden of using the rising tensions to spur positive media coverage and boost his reelection chances in 2024. Public opinion polling suggests the majority of the US population approves of the decisive action against Iranian aggression.
Broader Context Behind the Rapidly Unfolding Crisis
Most experts agree that the latest exchange of attacks between Iran-backed militias and US forces does not represent the likely start of a new Middle East war. Rather, it is emblematic of the ongoing shadow wars that have raged across Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and the surrounding region since the outbreak of civil war and collapse of state authority across the area over a decade ago.
However, several factors now risk transforming the typically low intensity violence into a wider regional conflagration. These include the approach of elections in both Iran and the US, collapse of efforts to restore the Iran Nuclear Deal, persistent Israeli airstrikes countering Iranian influence, and strengthened support from Russia and China protecting militias from international accountability. The difficult balancing act attempting to compel Iranian proxies without triggering uncontrolled escalation is fast becoming even more precarious.
Most analysts assess that as long as attacks remain below a minimal threshold, the Biden administration will likely respond with limited and proportional strikes to avoid all out war. But as Iran supplies their affiliates with increasingly advanced weaponry like long-range drones and ballistic missiles, the risks grow higher that future provocations could set off an unstoppable tit-for-tat cycle with devastating consequences for regional stability.
Both US and Iranian officials have left the door open for a return to negotiations over normalizing relations and reviving the Iran Nuclear Deal. However, with trust in short supply on both sides and Hawks dominant in Tehran and Washington, the diplomatic road to peace remains steep even as the military road to war speeds dangerously ahead. The future security and prosperity for millions of civilians across the Middle East precariously hangs in the balance.
Table showing recent sequence of attacks and responses between US and Iranian proxies:
|Drone strike kills 3 US soldiers
|US base in Jordan
|Retaliatory US airstrikes
|US airstrikes hit Iran-proxy weapons depots
|Syria, Iraq militias
|Threats of response from militias
|Militants launch rockets at US Green Zone base
|US Embassy Baghdad
|More US airstrikes
|Drones target US base in Tanf, Syria
|Potential additional US strikes
Table outlining key Iran-backed militias targeted by US strikes:
|Area of Operations
|Relationship to Iran
|Led by US-designated terrorist and Iranian proxy
|Rockets vs US; arms from Iran
|Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq
|Founded by Iran’s Quds Force
|Attacks on US bases
|Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada
|Created by IRGC to aid Assad regime
|Facilitating IRGC arms flows
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