On Thursday 26th of February, at 6 p.m. ET, the United States (US) military performed an airstrike along the Iraqi-Syrian border in Eastern Syria, targeting Iranian-backed Shia militias operating in the area. This operation is the first known strike by President’s Biden new administration. It comes as a response to a series of rocket strikes targeting the US and coalition forces in Iraq (including sites in Erbil and Baghdad) which, according to the Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, were presumably perpetrated by the same Shia militias stroke in Syria. The Pentagon identified Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada as two of the groups involved in the attacks and targeted by the US, despite the former denial of its involvement in the rocket strikes. The US did not confirm any casualties but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, reported that the US attack had killed at least 22 Iranian-backed militiamen and destroyed three trucks carrying ammunition. Syrian, Iranian, and Russian spokespersons have strongly condemned the US attack, while Iraq has denied providing the US information on the targeted location inside Syria, reiterating that their collaboration with US forces is limited to combating the so-called Islamic State.
The operation sends an unambiguous message: President Biden will act to protect American and Coalition personnel
This episode sheds light on the US’s new administration stance towards the Middle East and Iran. This attack does not appear to indicate Washington’s intention to widen its military involvement in the region and demonstrates a firm will to defend American troops in Iraq. Indeed, the Pentagon has declared that: “The operation sends an unambiguous message: President Biden will act to protect American and Coalition personnel. At the same time, we have acted in a deliberate manner that aims to de-escalate the overall situation in both eastern Syria and Iraq”. This statement denotes Biden Administration’s determination to signal that attacks on US personnel in Iraq would not be tolerated and met with impunity. However, given the small, calculated nature of the strike – rather than a large-scale, massive kind – the attack also signposts the goal to not escalate the situation and to favor the diplomatic approach over the military one, in the words of the Pentagon: “This proportionate military response was conducted together with diplomatic measures, including consultation with Coalition partners.”
The choice of striking the militias in Syria rather than Iraq demonstrates the American awareness of the extremely complex situation in Iraq
Moreover, the choice of striking the militias in Syria rather than Iraq demonstrates the American awareness of the extremely complex situation in Iraq, whose government has repeatedly condemned violations of its sovereignty and whose society is exasperated by the persistent use of their country as a battlefield for proxy wars. The strategy of non-escalation is presumably linked to US diplomatic initiatives to resume talks over the nuclear deal abandoned by former President Trump in 2018. Concerning such deal, the strike in Syria also stands as a strong signal to Iran that Washington’s will to engage diplomatically and renegotiate the nuclear deal does not imply turning a blind eye to Iranian proxies’ violent activities in the region. On its part, Iran has repeatedly denied any ties to the Erbil attack (15 February 2021) and to any other strike.
The Biden administration is now considering ways to salvage the Iranian nuclear deal after having pledged to re-embrace the pact throughout the presidential campaign
The Iran nuclear agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is a landmark accord reached between Iran and several world powers, including the United States, in July 2015. Under its terms, Iran agreed to dismantle much of its nuclear program and open its facilities to more extensive international inspections in exchange for billions of dollars’ worth of sanctions relief. After the US departure from the agreement in 2018, Iran resumed some of its nuclear activities, whose revival might escalate tensions with its rivals, including Israel and Saudi Arabia. The Biden administration is now considering ways to salvage the Iranian nuclear deal after having pledged to re-embrace the pact throughout the presidential campaign. Nevertheless, there appears to be a stalemate in negotiations since neither side is yet standing down in its insistence that the other moves first. Tehran claims that the US must lift all sanctions, and Washington maintains that Iran must first return to compliance with the nuclear agreement.
Furthermore, Biden has recently announced the will to negotiate a successor agreement to address Iran’s other activities, such as its missile program. Despite having called for the United States to return to the deal, Tehran has firmly declared that it is not willing to discuss expanding the accord further. Nonetheless, new negotiation prospects could come back in June 2021, when Iran is set to elect a new president. Many analysts say a conservative, hard-line candidate will likely replace President Rouhani, whose popularity has plummeted with its unraveling nuclear deal.
In conclusion, the new American administration’s first military action stands both as a retaliation response against Iranian proxies’ strikes on US sites in Iraq and to undermine the ability of militias to launch further attacks. However, the bombing sent a clear message to Tehran that despite Washington’s willingness to reengage diplomatically in the nuclear deal, the US will continue to defend its personnel and its strategic interests in the region and will not tolerate any violent pressures from Iranian-backed militias. Finally, with regards to the JCPOA, it could be argued that this strike will not necessarily jeopardize efforts to resume the nuclear deal. Conversely, it might be laying the foundations for further negotiations reiterating Washington’s red lines.
The Editor: Raffaella Colletti
Raffaella Colletti is an MA student in Middle Eastern studies at SOAS. She holds an MA in Intelligence and International Security from King’s College London and a BA in Political Science. She gained professional experience in research, risk assessment, and political analysis in international environments including Europol and the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism. Her main research interests lie at the nexus of security/conflict issues and human rights with a specific focus on the Middle East area.