When President Biden issued an order on Thursday for two airstrikes, the targets were in eastern Syria but the intended recipient of the message he was sending was not. Both the weapons depot and the ammunition dump blown up by F-16 jets were linked to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, who defense officials say have employed proxy forces to execute a string of attacks against US bases in the region.
Biden is hoping to convince Tehran to end the conflict before things go too far. But escalating to stop things from further escalating requires a delicate touch, and some observers in the region fear Iran’s leaders have no interest in pulling back now.
Since Hamas’ surprise Oct. 7 attack on Israel, U.S. forces have been increasingly getting drawn into hot engagements with forces armed, trained and advised by leaders in Tehran. Over the last three weeks, Iranian-backed militias have launched 19 ballistic drone attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria, injuring some 21 American troops. Last week, a U.S. naval ship in the Red Sea blew up a long-range rocket heading toward Israel that was launched by Iranian-backed forces in Yemen.
Iran’s actions seem designed to draw the U.S. deeper into direct conflict, says Ryan Crocker, a retired diplomat who served as ambassador across the MIddle East, including Lebanon, Kuwait, Syria, Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan.
If an attack by Iranian armed groups manages to kill any U.S. troops, Biden would be under tremendous pressure to respond forcefully, Crocker says, bringing the U.S. closer to a direct war with Tehran. If Iranian-backed forces “get lucky and kill 20 US military, the administration is gonna be compelled to make a major response, and in that target deck would have to be targets within Iran itself,” says Crocker, who is now a nonresident senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Which illustrates just how quickly the conflict that started with Hamas’s massacre in southern Israel could end up spinning into a wider war, with devastating consequences.
U.S. military forces in the Middle East are on high alert for additional attacks. Biden has deployed the powerful USS Gerald Ford aircraft carrier group in the Eastern Mediterranean in a show of force designed to prevent conflict in the region from spreading beyond between Israel and Hamas. Another carrier group, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, is sailing toward the Mediterranean, will eventually move to the Persian Gulf, putting it in waters off the coast of Iran, defense officials say.
Beyond the carrier groups, the U.S. also has jets stationed at Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey and has added additional fighter jets to the region. And the three-ship Bataan Amphibious Ready Group, which holds 1,000 Marines, is on high alert nearby.
There are also U.S. troops stationed at Al Assad airbase in Iraq and Al Tanf garrison in Syria to help counter the Islamic State in the region. It was American troops on those two bases that have come under repeated attack from Iranian-backed forces this month.
Biden used diplomatic channels this week to send a rare message directly to the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. “My warning to the Ayatollah was that if they continue to move against those troops, we will respond, and he should be prepared,” President Biden said at the White House on Thursday, hours before the strikes in Syria.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin added in his own statement on Thursday, warning that “these Iranian-backed attacks against U.S. forces are unacceptable and must stop.”
“Iran wants to hide its hand and deny its role in these attacks against our forces,” Austin said. “We will not let them. If attacks by Iran’s proxies against U.S. forces continue, we will not hesitate to take further necessary measures to protect our people.”
So far, “The administration has gotten it right,” says Jonathan Panikoff, director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council's Middle East Program. But he adds the risks in this current moment go beyond leaders on either side orchestrating targeted attacks in the region.
“My biggest concern is the chances for unintended escalation,” Panikoff says.
Iran has spent years funding, arming and training militias in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, as well as backing Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, which has a robust arsenal of ballistic rockets that can strike deep into Israel.
A rocket barrage from Hezbollah could inadvertently kill Israeli soldiers or be viewed as more intense than it was intended, Panikoff says. That could set off a chain of events that would be hard to stop. “I worry mostly about the potential for ending up in a conflict that was not desired by anybody,” Panikoff says.
Hezbollah and the Israeli military frequently exchange fire on Israel’s northern border. So far, as Israel focuses on Gaza in its South, there isn’t a sign that Iran wants Hezbollah to launch a major attack on Israel’s other flank.
Looming over all of the brinkmanship in the region is Iran’s ambitions to have a nuclear weapon. When Biden came into office, he tried to start back up the nuclear deal designed to restrict Iran’s advancement toward a nuclear bomb that President Donald Trump had scrapped. But those efforts faltered.
“I am confident they have the internal capability to produce a nuclear weapon,” says Crocker, the former long-time US diplomat, “so it’s simply a question of do they decide to pull the lever on that and develop one.”
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