Why does the US not respond to Iran’s strikes in Syria and Iraq?
Enab Baladi- Khaled al-Jeratli
An uptick in rocket and drone attacks by Iranian-backed proxy groups against military bases housing US personnel in Iraq and Syria since the beginning of October makes US officials deeply concerned about the potential for any significant escalation of these attacks in the days ahead.
The American bases in Syria and Iraq have been targeted 13 times in a series of drone attacks, the most recent of which was two attacks on Thursday, which struck the American “Kharab al-Shahm” base in al-Hasakah, northeastern Syria, and the “Ain al-Assad” air base in Iraq.
Unusually, the United States contented itself with announcing the targeting of its forces stationed in the region without responding to these attacks, as happened most of the previous times when the pace of targeting of the bases themselves escalated.
Two dozen American military personnel were wounded last week in a series of drone attacks at American bases in Iraq and Syria, US Central Command told NBC News on Tuesday.
Twenty American personnel sustained minor injuries on Oct. 18 when at least two one-way attack drones targeted al-Tanf military base in southern Syria, CENTCOM said.
Why does the US not respond?
Diaa Qaddour, a specialist in Iranian affairs, told Enab Baladi that the past few days have witnessed a change in the tone of American statements regarding targeting its bases in the Middle East, and it directly accused Iranian agents of carrying out these attacks.
The analyst considered that the American resumption of talk about Iran’s involvement in the “Hamas” attack on October 7 on the areas surrounding Gaza is evidence of the Americans’ severity towards the Iranians in the region.
The repeated Iranian attacks have become a source of embarrassment to the US administration, although the administration of US President Joe Biden is known to be following an “appeasement” approach, but it has become embarrassed by targeting its forces in the region, according to Qaddour.
Qaddour believes that the embarrassment these attacks caused to Washington may eventually prompt it to respond.
But the form, nature, and repercussions of the American response have not yet been decided, especially since previous responses to this type of attack were more suitable for media use than as a military response that strengthens the American deterrence equation.
Last Monday, the United States commented on the repeated attacks on its military bases in Syria and Iraq.
US Department of Defense spokesman John Kirby said during a press briefing, “We know these groups are supported by the IRGC and their regime. We know Iran continues to support Hamas and Hezbollah. And we know that Iran is closely monitoring these events and, in some cases, actively facilitating these attacks and spurring on others who may want to exploit the conflict for their own good or for that of Iran.
Kirby added, “We know Iran’s goal is to maintain some level of deniability here, but we’re not going to allow them to do that. We also are not going to allow any threat to our interests in the region to go unchallenged.”
The US spokesman confirmed that Iranian support for the proxies is not a secret and that there is a very direct link between the “Revolutionary Guard” and these groups.
Mustafa al-Nuaimi, Iranian affairs analyst, for his part, believes that the American battleships and military forces that recently arrived in the Middle East are political messages with military deterrence tools, the purpose of which is to respond directly to any new change in the rules of engagement in the region.
Al-Nuaimi believes that the same attacks in Syria and Iraq have not yet met the conditions for American escalation, as Washington is still waiting for opportunities to calm down.
The analyst considered that what is happening in the region is still within the rules of engagement, but if these mutual responses develop between both parties, the results will be different and will impose a new military reality.
America’s ladder of military escalation
In the midst of the missile attacks that targeted American sites in Syria and Iraq, accompanied by an escalation in military operations in southern Palestine, The Economist magazine prepared a report on the American return to the Middle East after attempts to reduce its presence there.
“After a decade of tapering down its military presence in the region, America is back with a huge display of force. In the past few days two fighter squadrons have flown in.” They follow the deployment of two aircraft-carrier strike groups, multiple air-defense systems, and much aid to Israel. More units have been told to prepare to deploy, said the American magazine.
America’s goal, according to The Economist, is to “deter attacks on American interests, on Israel and to a degree on its Arab allies. But what if deterrence fails? The daunting possibilities range from attacks against American soldiers to strikes on shipping in the Persian Gulf and rocket attacks that overwhelm Israel’s air defenses.”
The report believes that Washington has a wide range of options if it is forced to use force, as the American aircraft carrier “Gerald Ford,” located in the Mediterranean Sea, is the most advanced aircraft carrier, and it was commissioned only six years ago, with more than 75 aircraft and electromagnetic launch equipment and can maintain a high frequency of sorties.
Another aircraft carrier that recently headed to the Middle East carries a similar set of air assets, and the two carriers are accompanied by up to five destroyers equipped with air defense radars, the Aegis system, and interceptor missiles that can be used to protect Israel and the Gulf states.
The report reads the American options for response at three successive levels on the escalation scale, the first of which is intelligence gathering, defensive action, and then offensive action.
Considering the first step, intelligence gathering is already underway, as the “Gerald Ford” carries huge information-gathering platforms, in addition to four electronic warfare aircraft, four others specialized in early warning, and many helicopters and drones.
Just as NATO aircraft are active in the Black Sea, collecting intelligence for Ukraine, American aircraft will likely fly up and down the coasts of Lebanon, Israel, and Gaza, collecting signals that are then transmitted to the Pentagon, Israel, and perhaps Arab allies.
If deterrence fails, the next rung on the US escalation ladder is defensive action, which remains relatively easy to justify to the American people.
The report summarized this phase by strengthening the Israeli “Iron Dome” defenses, escorting commercial ships in the Arabian Gulf region to protect them, and intercepting missiles that might be launched from Yemen, as happened previously.
The final step comes after the defensive action, which is the attack, as a larger and more controversial step, which the White House and the Pentagon are carefully trying to avoid, but they may be forced to do so.
The report indicated that the offensive action that Washington may take in response to attacks targeting its forces will remain the type that is easiest to justify, especially with the presence of 2,500 soldiers in Iraq and 900 soldiers in Syria.
Pressure on Biden to retaliate
The Washington Post quoted (unnamed) officials that President Joe Biden is “considering striking Iranian proxies who attacked American forces in Iraq and Syria.”
The newspaper added that the American president “is facing increasing pressure from Republicans to respond to the attacks that targeted American forces in Iraq and Syria,” according to the newspaper.
With the reinforcements pushed by the US administration to strengthen its combat power and defense equipment in the Middle East, Republicans in Congress appealed to Biden to respond to the attacks.
The latest to join the list demanding a response is retired General Joseph Votel, whose last position as head of US Central Command in the region gave him a first-hand look at Iran’s support for militias throughout the Middle East.
On Wednesday, US President Joe Biden directly warned Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, of continuing increasing attacks on American forces in the region.
While speaking about American forces in the Middle East, Biden said in a press conference with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, “Our forces are in the region to prevent the threat of ISIS from returning, and their presence there has nothing to do with Israel.”
He added, warning Khamenei, “If they continue to move against our forces, we will respond, and he must be prepared. The matter has nothing to do with Israel.”
What does Iran want?
This is not the first time that American bases have been attacked in Syria and Iraq, as they have always been the scene of Iranian messages, part of which Washington responded by bombing sites of pro-Tehran militias in the region.
In July 2021, the same region witnessed an escalation in the targeting of American bases, as the Pentagon said at the time that Iranian-backed militias were responsible for the drone attacks that targeted their military bases in Syria and Iraq.
Considering that the targeting dates back to an earlier period of time than the escalating events in the occupied Palestinian territories, which the “Islamic Resistance in Iraq” uses as a starting point to target US bases in the region, the Iranian goal of these targeting may be the same, for years.
Iranian affairs researcher Qaddour told Enab Baladi that Iran deliberately links its targeting of American bases in Syria to the events in Gaza to maintain its position on the Palestinian issue.
He added that these repeated events in the region were left by the loophole left by the United States in the deterrence equation in northeastern Syria, as Tehran exploits the loophole to appear to be participating in the events in Palestine, as it targets America, the main ally and supporter of Israel.
Since October 8, militias believed to be close to Iran have targeted American bases in Syria and Iraq 13 times, the most recent of which was targeting a base east of al-Hasakah on Wednesday evening and another on Thursday morning in Iraq.
The targets focused on two main bases in Syria, namely the “al-Tanf” base, east of Homs, and the “Koniko oil field” base, east of Deir Ezzor governorate, and the “Ain al-Assad” air base in Iraq.
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