Opinion: Middle East crisis: US airstrikes against Iran-backed armed groups explained

Julie Norman
Julie Norman

Dr Julie Norman (UCL Political Science) explains what the US airstrikes against Iran-backed armed groups means for the Gaza conflict, President Biden and the Middle East region in The Conversation.

US airstrikes on Iran-backed armed groups  on February 2  have been anticipated for some time. Since the Hamas attacks in Israel on October 7, US forces in the Middle East have been targeted more than  150 times. These attacks, mainly on US bases in Iraq and Syria caused minimal damage thanks to US air defence capabilities.

The Biden administration had responded with  modest strikes  on the militias’ weapons storage and training sites. But a  drone attack  on January 28 on Tower 22, a US base on the Jordanian-Syrian border, killed three soldiers and wounded dozens of others.

The deaths represented an unofficial red line for many in Washington, and  political pressure  mounted fast on President Biden to respond more forcefully against the armed groups - or even  against Iran  itself.

Officials  said the air strikes targeted command-and-control sites, intelligence centres and drone storage facilities in Iraq and Syria affiliated with the militias and also with the  Quds Force , a branch of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

Biden  also stated  that the US would continue strikes at times and places of their choosing.

Though more widespread than previous strikes, the response was  carefully calibrated  to avoid stoking a broader war. Furthermore, the US signalled its intentions days in advance, giving the groups and their advisers time to move to minimise casualties.

Militant groups targeted

There are about  40 militant groups  in the region backed by Iran. These include high-profile groups such as  Hamas , which carried out the October 7 attack in Israel as well as  Hezbollah , which has been engaged in cross-border fire with Israel on the Lebanon border since October. Meanwhile,  Houthi rebels  in Yemen have faced separate  US and UK strikes  in response to their targeting of commercial ships in the Red Sea.

But many other, smaller groups operate as well. Responsibility for the lethal drone strike was claimed by the  Islamic Resistance of Iraq , a loose network of Iran-backed militias including  Kataib Hezbollah , which fought against coalition forces during the Iraq war. These and other militias have continued to target US troops who remain in the region to prevent the resurgence of Islamic State.

Iran  provides  a mix of training, intelligence, funding and weapons to groups within its self-described "axis of resistance". But Tehran  does not fully control  the militias, who operate with varying degrees of autonomy, and who might be better seen as affiliates than proxies.

US political choices

The Biden administration has been walking a tightrope in the Middle East. On the one hand, the administration’s primary aim for the past four months has been  preventing  a regional war in the aftermath of the Hamas attack and the subsequent war in Gaza. At the same time, the US has sought to deter adversaries who have been using increasing degrees of armed force against US personnel (and, in the case of the Red Sea, against international commercial vessels).

The challenge has been in determining a response that is forceful enough to deter further attacks, but not so devastating as to provoke a fully fledged war.

With the election year, Biden is also facing  additional scrutiny  from home on his foreign policy decisions. Donald Trump has long sought to make Biden  look weak  on Iran, while many Democrats have been  critical  of the president’s use of airstrikes, as well as his approach to the war in Gaza. The calibrated airstrikes of the weekend will probably attract further  criticism  from both sides - for going too far or not far enough.

Gaza conflict

There’s no guarantee that a ceasefire (temporary or permanent) would bring a stop to attacks on US troops in Iraq and Syria, or to Houthi attacks on vessels in the Red Sea. But it’s undeniable that the crisis in Gaza has emboldened armed groups around the region, who have repeatedly  used the war to justify  their actions.

The US, Egypt and Qatar have been mediating between Israel and Hamas to  negotiate a deal  that would see a halt of military operations in Gaza in return for a phased release of hostages. While clearly crucial for the  hostages  and their families and for the  civilian population of Gaza , the deal could also be the key to defusing other tensions in the region, at least temporarily.

While the deal is far from a final  agreement , the nature of the US strikes was probably calibrated in part to avoid disrupting the process.

Preventing regional war

Iran, as well as Iraq and Syria,  have denounced  the strikes, and accused the US of aggression. But Iran has not indicated it  plans to retaliate. This suggests that Tehran - like Washington - is still keen to  avoid  a head-to-head conflict with the US.

Meanwhile, while Kataib Hezbollah has announced it  will halt  attacks on US troops, other armed groups have said that  this  is not the end, and they will continue to strike against the US presence in the region.

For the Biden administration, the aim of  preventing  a regional war is still the right objective, even - perhaps especially - in the face of rising tensions. A policy of careful calibration, coupled with meaningful negotiations to halt the war in Gaza, may not be as politically enticing as flexing US military might - but it’s the approach that is most in line with the longer-term interests of the US and the region.

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