- The Biden administration is trying to deter attacks on US troops without igniting an Iran war.
- US airstrikes aim to instill fear, as it’s very difficult to destroy all of the militant’s weapons.
- Iran knows this and is “setting the United States up for a lose-lose choice,” an analyst said.
Strikes against American troops in Iraq and Syria have dropped off after the blitz of airstrikes last Friday and the assassination of a militia commander by drone. But experts on the region say that Iran and its militant allies still have the arsenal and motivations to threaten them.
“Attacks on US forces in Iraq have dropped off very significantly since the Jan. 28 killing of three Americans,” Michael Knights, an Iraq expert at the Washington Institute, told Insider, adding “we cannot know” if these airstrikes were the “decisive factor.”
The Biden administration is walking a security and political tightrope. Failure to respond to the deadly drone attack that also injured over 40 US troops is politically fraught, especially in an election year; Republican presidential contenders said the attack showed President Joe Biden was weak, or that the US should strike Iran itself — a tactic the administration has so far avoided because it risks a more dangerous confrontation.
The US airstrikes on Feb. 2 hit 85 targets in seven locations in Iraq and Syria, killing an estimated 40 militiamen. On Wednesday, it killed a Kataib Hezbollah commander that US Central Command said was “responsible for directly planning and participating in attacks on US forces in the region.”
“The US is targeting the groups that are mainly responsible for attacks on American forces and also the ones openly talking and bragging about it,” Joel Wing, author of the authoritative Musings on Iraq blog, told Insider.
Wing added the militias were expecting these strikes, as evidenced by reports of their leaders fleeing headquarters and bases to avoid being hit. He expects militia attacks to resume and is skeptical about whether these airstrikes will achieve all that much.
The US strategy is to deal enough damage to make militants more fearful of attacking American forces, a limited aim in part because it’s too simple to fly suicide drones or fire rockets to fully remove those risks, analysts said.
“At most, attacks of this kind may cause them to be more careful and take precautions before launching a strike that seems especially likely to kill US troops,” said Aron Lund, a fellow with Century Internation. “But they’re not going to stop trying.”
“It’s not like the threat of aerial attack is going to paralyze them. They’re used to it,” Lund said. “They’ve been confronting the United States in one form or another since the early 2000s, always under hostile skies. And they’re being trained by masters of the art, Hezbollah.”
Nicholas Heras, senior director of strategy and innovation at the New Lines Institute, said the Biden administration is following “a careful playbook” to focus attacks against Iranian proxies in retaliation while refraining from preemptive strikes that might “goad Iran” into expanding the conflict.
“A secondary goal that the US is trying to achieve with these strikes against key Iranian proxy leaders in Iraq is to send a strong message that these Iranian proxy figures cannot hide behind their affiliation with the Iraqi government to avoid retribution from America,” Heras told Insider.
Both Iran and the militias it trains and supplies, however, have many reasons to resume their attacks, analysts say. For militias like Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq, it’s to provoke US responses that increase opposition to the 2,500 US troops based in Iraq.
“You see it, especially in Iraq, where each new US retaliatory strike stirs up local opposition and forces the Baghdad government to ramp up its rhetoric about ending the US and Coalition presence,” Lund said. “By responding to the attacks, the United States poisons its relationship with local allies and screws up its position in Iraq. But not responding is also not an option. That’s why the attacks will continue.”
For Iran, the goal is much larger.
Lund believes Iran is trying to force the US into “a choice of either escalating, at the cost of serious political headaches, or just being a sitting duck and losing troops.”
“They know a superpower can’t choose the latter option,” Lund said. “They’re setting the United States up for a lose-lose choice while also loudly and clearly pointing to the only off-ramp they intend to keep open.”
“That’s ending the war in Gaza.”