Dosed retaliation: US military strikes against militias in the Middle East

After the deaths of three US soldiers in the Middle East, the Americans launched a major retaliatory strike against pro-Iranian militias. More are to follow. Is there a risk of war with Iran in the end?

The USA waited days for its announced retaliation. The US military then struck on Saturday night. For 30 minutes, American forces said they fired from the air at more than 85 targets in 7 locations in Iraq and Syria: command centers, intelligence sites and weapons depots that were reportedly used by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) and associated militias. The series of air strikes represents a new escalation in the Middle East – even if the Americans deliberately refrained from attacking targets in Iran itself. But US President Joe Biden makes it clear: This is just the beginning.

The Revenge of the Americans

Last Sunday, three American soldiers were killed and numerous others injured in a drone attack by pro-Iranian militias in Jordan. The bodies were returned to the USA on Friday. Biden paid his last respects at the US Air Force Base in Dover, Delaware. Barely two hours later, air strikes began thousands of kilometers away in Iraq and Syria. The US military emphasized that the timing was a coincidence. The timing of the air strikes was based solely on military considerations – favorable weather conditions.

Biden threatened retaliation immediately after the attack in Jordan, but took his time with how and where. He faced the difficult task of finding a balance: deterring Tehran-backed forces in the region without provoking even harsher reactions; To demonstrate strength and, if possible, prevent the deaths of more US soldiers without completely escalating the situation in the Middle East and risking war with Iran. Whether he succeeded in the balancing act remains to be seen.

Activists and government: 45 dead in US attacks

According to activists and officials, at least 45 people have been killed in US air strikes on dozens of pro-Iranian militia targets in Iraq and Syria. A government spokesman in Baghdad said on Saturday that civilians were among the 16 people who died in Iraq. He didn’t give a number. There were also 36 injuries and damage to residential buildings and private property. According to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 29 members of pro-Iranian militias have been killed in Syria.

The Syrian Defense Ministry said the attacks were “an attempt to weaken the capabilities of the Syrian army and its allies in the fight against terrorism.” The “US aggression” killed several civilians and military personnel and caused serious damage, the ministry told the state agency Sana. It was said that the fight against the terrorist militia Islamic State (IS) was underway in the area attacked by the US military.

The danger of a new war

It is unlikely that the attacks by pro-Iranian groups could stop completely after the US military action. Things could become particularly dangerous if another attack by militias – perhaps due to poor planning and execution – killed more US soldiers. The next step would then be a direct attack on Iran’s Revolutionary Guard – and thus a dramatic expansion of the conflict.

Iran and the USA have repeatedly been on the brink of war in the past. In January 2020 – under then-President Donald Trump – the US killed the powerful Iranian general Ghassem Soleimani and the Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis in a drone strike in Baghdad. Weeks of military tension followed. The deeper the USA is drawn into the new confrontations with Iran and its allies, the greater the danger that they will develop a dynamic of their own – regardless of the Gaza war, even if it was the trigger.

EU chief diplomat warns of escalation after US attacks

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell has warned of a further escalation of tensions following the US retaliatory strikes. The Middle East is a “cauldron that could explode,” said the Spaniard on Saturday on the sidelines of an informal meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels. Everyone involved is called upon to make every effort to avoid an escalation.

The escalation spiral

Since the beginning of the Gaza war between Israel and the Islamist Hamas in October, the situation in the Middle East has become increasingly degenerate. While Israel is fighting Hamas in the Gaza Strip, there are almost daily attacks between Israel and Hezbollah in the Israeli-Lebanese border region. At the same time, the Yemeni Houthi militia is tyrannizing international container shipping in the Red Sea in solidarity with Hamas. All three groups – Hamas, Hezbollah and Houthi – are closely linked to Iran. And the Gaza war is increasingly becoming a shadow conflict not only between Israel and its arch-enemy Iran, but also between Washington and Tehran.

The USA – as Israel’s closest ally – has come under increased scrutiny from pro-Iranian militias in recent weeks. The attack in Jordan was just the climax of a series of attacks on American targets in the region. Since the start of the Gaza war, there have been more than 160 attacks on US forces in Iraq and Syria. The USA has already responded with air strikes in both countries. But with the death of the three soldiers in Jordan near the Syrian border, a new dimension was reached. Biden was under great pressure to hit back harder than before.

Pressure on Biden at home

The Democrat is in the middle of the campaign for a second term. Republicans – especially Biden’s predecessor and likely challenger in the next presidential election in November, Donald Trump – recently accused the president of weakness and called on him to finally take action. Agitators like Republican Senator Lindsey Graham even called for a US attack on Iranian soil. That would have been the most drastic and probably most consequential step. Biden decided against it.

Revenge in installments

However, he makes it clear that there is more to come. “Our response began today. It will continue at times and places of our choosing,” he said after the airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. High-ranking US government officials had already announced that the retaliation would take place in several steps over a certain period of time. When, where and how the Americans strike next will also depend on what Iran and its allied militias do now.

“The United States does not seek conflict in the Middle East or anywhere else in the world,” emphasized Biden. “But for all those who wish to harm us, know this: If you harm an American, we will respond.”

A few days ago, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken described the situation in the Middle East as more dangerous than it has been in half a century. The US government has failed to contain tensions despite breathless diplomacy and various military actions against the Houthis and other pro-Iranian groups in the region. On the contrary. With each new escalation, there is growing concern that a wildfire in the region can no longer be averted. Biden’s government has been repeating for weeks that the USA does not want the conflict to expand and, above all, war with Iran. But the danger is there.