The recent U.S. airstrikes against Iranian-backed militias were the largest ordered by President Biden since he took office, a large-scale retaliation for a drone attack that killed three U.S. troops in Jordan.
But they were also designed as what some officials coyly call a “Goldilocks” option – large enough to cause major damage, but not so large that Iran feels compelled to respond.
Friday’s strikes in Iraq and Syria caused considerable damage to missile sites and other facilities used by Iran’s allies in those countries. On Saturday, the United States and Britain struck Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen who were attacking international shipping in the Red Sea.
But if the goal was to deter Iran and its proxies once and for all, it is unlikely to succeed.
The aim of the offensive was more than simple reprisals. This was to destroy as much of the weaponry of Iran’s proxy forces as possible and deter the groups from launching future attacks – all without triggering a major war with their sponsors in Tehran.
“The goal here is to stop these attacks,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said. “We are not looking for a war with Iran.”
In this sense, the operations appear to have been successful, at least in the short term.
Iran condemned the attacks but did not threaten reprisals. Instead, he warned the United States against attacking two Iranian ships in the Red Sea suspected of being used by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Even before the airstrikes, the largest Iranian-backed militant group in Iraq announced it was “suspending” its attacks on U.S. targets. (This did not spare the group, Kataib Hezbollah, from being affected.)
But in the long term, it is almost certain that Iran and its proxies will regroup and seek new opportunities to attack U.S. military installations and other U.S. interests in the region.
The Revolutionary Guard’s powerful forces are too deeply committed to the goal of expelling the United States from the Middle East to stand down for long. The Guard’s Quds Force has spent decades training and equipping pro-Iranian militias in neighboring countries.
Moreover, the militias in western Iraq and eastern Syria targeted by the airstrikes have their own reasons to continue fighting: expelling the United States from the region is also their political brand.
“These are not robots completely controlled by Iran,” said Vali Nasr of Johns Hopkins University. “They have become the representation of anti-Americanism in Iraq. Every strike and counterattack reinforces this [status].”
And the continued presence of more than 6,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, Syria and Jordan — a deployment that many Americans likely forgot about until the Jan. 28 drone strike killed three people at a desert base – always offers a tempting list of targets.
These troops are there in the wake of the U.S.-led war against the Islamic State, the bloodthirsty terrorist group that took control of much of Iraq and Syria in 2014. The U.S. United, Iraq and other allies defeated the Islamic State on the battlefield in 2019. But the group’s remnants still roam the deserts of Syria and Iraq, and some 10,000 of its fighters are abandoned in Kurdish prisons in northeast Syria because no country wants to welcome them.
Officially, the American deployment in the desert is there to help Iraqi and Kurdish forces prevent the return of the Islamic State. But in recent years, American units have been given an additional, unofficial mission: keeping an eye on the Revolutionary Guards and their increasingly capable proxy forces. Small American detachments are neither authorized nor equipped to wage war against the Guard or anyone else.
Iran-backed militias have attacked U.S. units more than 150 times since October with missiles and drones, most of which missed their targets.
“The militias were created for exactly this purpose,” said Charles Lister, a Syria expert at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “They are local and we are not. They can afford to continue a long attrition strategy. We don’t really have a counterattack to that.
This has created a dilemma for American policymakers. The U.S. military presence was never intended to be permanent, but an immediate withdrawal would likely allow the Islamic State to re-emerge.
Republican hawks say the problem can be easily solved. “Hit Iran and hit it hard,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). insisted last week. But Graham and his colleagues would not be responsible for the consequences of a major war between the United States and Iran.
That’s why the Biden administration has opted for what it hopes will become the Goldilocks option. If the airstrikes do enough damage, Iran-backed militias will at least have fewer drones and missiles to launch at U.S. targets.
“As usual, there are no good options,” said a former senior official.
The most likely outcome, experts say, is that the militias will take a break, but not for long. This is essentially what happened in 2020 after then-President Trump ordered the assassination of Gen. Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Revolutionary Guards, while he was visiting Iraq.
At some point, one of these Iranian-backed groups will likely strike again, whether to further the interests of the Islamic Republic or its own.
The cycle of attacks and reprisals will begin again. This is how the Middle East works.
Note: The content and images used in this article is rewritten and sourced from www.latimes.com