What Lies Behind the US Retaliatory Air Strikes in Syria?

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region


After a little more than a month in office, US President Joe Biden ordered a retaliatory strike against Iranian-backed militias based in Syria. The air strikes were a response to alleged attacks by Kataib Hizbullah and Kataib Sayed Al-Shuhada on US targets in Iraq. Iraqi and Iranian lawmakers were quick to condemn the US actions, accusing Washington of targeting forces that were vital for the fight against a resurgent ISIS. Meanwhile, regional commentators and government officials continue to pay attention to every new move by the Biden administration in the hope of understanding where its priorities lie.

The US air strikes, albeit limited in nature and duration, received a swift condemnation by Iraqi lawmakers, who, according to Iranian Press TV, took issue with the US targeting of what the Iraqis insisted were forces loyal to the Iraqi government, characterizing the attacks on “the positions of anti-terror Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) – better known by the Arabic name Hashd al-Sha’abi – on the Iraqi-Syrian border as an act of sheer folly. He [Iraqi parliamentarian Kata’a al-Rikabi] described the latest US air raids against the PMU forces ‘as a huge and grave mistake,’ emphasizing that the PMU is part of the Iraqi armed forces…. Separately, Karim al-Muhammadawi, another member of the Iraqi parliament’s committee on security and defense, told Arabic-language al-Maalomah news agency that popular resistance against illegal military occupation is a legitimate right guaranteed by international law, expressing surprise over the Baghdad government’s procrastination to implement a parliamentary bill demanding the withdrawal of all foreign military forces led by the United States from the country.”

For the Iranians, the US airstrikes underscore the fact that, while administrations may change, US actions and ‘belligerence’ continue. The main Iranian daily newspaper, Tehran Times, shared a number of reactions from high-ranking government officials condemning US actions in Syria: “Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, the Iranian Parliament speaker’s special aide for international affairs, has condemned the recent U.S. airstrikes on anti-terror Iraqi popular forces in eastern Syria, according to Fars news agency. ‘The new American administration has just changed mask and continues the path of the former one in supporting the ISIS terrorist group,’ he stressed.  Amir-Abdollahian noted that U.S. President Joe Biden’s claims of fighting against terrorism during his presidential campaign were all lies as he has ordered the Pentagon to strike anti-ISIS forces. ‘While @JoeBiden boasted about war against terrorism & #ISIS during the campaign, his authorization to strike local anti-ISIS forces shows how @WhiteHouse is a hypocrite vis-a-vis terrorism & keeps its friendship w/DAESH. Mask of White House occupants has just changed & nothing more!’ he tweeted.”

Still, there is a lot of uncertainty about the policies that will shape the US engagement in the region. Some, including Al Ahram’s Hussein Haridy, see a US policy on the move, willing to either undo or go beyond the policies of the previous administration, but which is also only in its early days and subject to change: “For the first time since Joe Biden became president, Washington launched a military attack against Iran-linked Iraqi militias – Kataib Hizbullah and Kataib Sayed Al-Shuhada – on the Syrian-Iraqi border. That was 36 days into Biden’s term. A day later, on Friday 26 February, a newly declassified Director of National Intelligence (DNI) report on the Saudi government’s involvement in killing Jamal Khashoggi was released, however reluctantly, and Washington announced its willingness to resume talks with Iran about its nuclear programme on Thursday 18 February. The three developments will no doubt shake the region, generating questions about US Middle East diplomacy and the challenges that face Washington on its quest to maintain relations with its regional allies and partners in a positive and consistent way.”
On the other hand, The National’s  Khaled Yacoub Oweis feels that, given the US administration’s stated desire to revisit the Iran nuclear deal, Mr. Biden is likely to adopt a more cautious policy towards Iran, for fear of alienating it, a concern Oweis suggests Mr. Biden shared with his Democratic predecessor: “The attacks by Iran-backed militias, which killed and maimed hundreds of American soldiers in Iraq, were somewhat forgotten in Washington as the Barack Obama administration sought a nuclear deal with Tehran in isolation from Iranian actions in the region. Now, as Mr Biden looks to revive the nuclear deal abandoned by former president Donald Trump, many of the same challenges remain as critics wonder how he will negotiate with a government using proxy forces to attack American interests. Mr Biden is walking a fine line between punishing Iran for its military aggression and remaining on terms good enough to persuade its leaders to resume compliance with the nuclear accord.”

Writing for the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, Oraib Rantawi, a columnist and director of the Amman-based Al Quds Center for Political Studies, suggests that perhaps another reason for the US president’s measured response may be the possibility of an Israeli-Syrian rapprochement: “A shift in Damascus’ policy towards Jerusalem could provide Assad with much-needed funds to rebuild his country and repatriate the half of his population that is scattered around the world since the 10-year long civil war…. After 10 years of fighting, the Syrians have a tremendous task ahead…. The United States must recognize the legitimacy of the Assad regime, cancel all American and European sanctions imposed on Syria and provide substantial financial assistance to rebuild the country…. Assad would then be able to reap the benefits of entering talks without committing to neglecting his territorial demands, while Israel would be able to claim it is chipping away at a most significant wall of resistance to peace.”

It is not clear how much evidence there is for the scenario described by Mr. Rantawi. In fact, critics of the Iranian regime fear the US response was not sufficiently muscular and are urging the US to take a more aggressive stance toward Iran. In an op-ed for Arab News, Majid Rafizadeh, a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist, noted that, while welcomed, “The US airstrikes against Iran-backed militia groups in Syria last week were… definitely not adequate when it comes to confronting the Iranian regime and its widespread militia network…. When the Iranian leaders become cognizant of the fact there will be military consequences for their attacks on US entities, they will use more restraint…. In order to effectively confront the Iranian regime, the Biden administration should refrain from sending contradictory messages, such as mixing airstrikes on Iran-linked targets with advocating the revival of the 2015 nuclear agreement, which will lift sanctions against the regime and help billions of dollars flow into its treasury. Iran’s nuclear program must not be treated as separate from the regime’s malign behavior and support for terror groups in the Middle East.”

Turkish commentator Burhanettin Duran, writing for the Daily Sabah, argues that US ambivalence in the region is likely due to the fact that the Biden White House has determined that its priorities lie in Asia and elsewhere, rather than the Middle East. And yet, Duran adds, it is unlikely Mr. Biden will avoid becoming embroiled in the region: “Nowadays, Biden follows in his predecessors’ footsteps, prioritizing the Asia Pacific region. But the Western hemisphere and Europe are both also on his list of priorities. It is no secret that Biden, who dealt with the Middle East throughout his political career, is tired of the region’s problems – including Iraq, Syria, Daesh and the PKK/YPG…. Friday’s U.S. airstrikes against Iran-backed militias in Syria were an act of retaliation. Washington had now responded to an earlier attack against its military base in Irbil, Iraq. That “proportionate” military response signals America’s preparedness to use force…. Iran now prepares for a transition from Trump’s maximum pressure to Biden’s smart pressure. The Americans can create a new balance of power in the Middle East by making small changes, but they won’t be able to wash their hands of the region altogether.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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