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New Atlanticist January 28, 2024

Experts react: Three US servicemembers were killed in Jordan. Will the US strike back at Iran?

By Atlantic Council experts

The escalation continues. A drone attack on a US outpost in northeastern Jordan on Sunday killed three US servicemembers and injured dozens more. Since October 7, 2023, when Hamas launched its terror attack on Israel, there have been more than 150 rocket, missile, and drone attacks on US forces in the Middle East, but the strike overnight was the first to kill a US soldier. In a statement on Sunday afternoon, US President Joe Biden said that Iran-backed militant groups operating in Syria and Iraq were responsible. Below. Atlantic Council experts put the strike in context and explain how the United States should respond.

This post will be updated as the story evolves and more reactions come in.

Click to jump to an expert analysis:

William F. Wechsler: The US failed in believing it was managing Iran and its proxies

Kimberly Donovan: Target the financial institutions and jurisdictions enabling Iran’s financial activity

Jonathan Panikoff: It’s time to take on the threat from Iran—not just its proxies

Matt Kroenig: The US could hit back against Iran’s navy, top leadership, or nuclear program

Nathan Sales: Stop self-deterring and take the gloves off with Iran

Abbas Kadhim: The attack came as the US and Iraq are negotiating on US troop presence

Qutaiba Idlbi: The US should deliver a strategic blow to Iran’s capabilities in eastern Syria

Thomas S. Warrick: Iran doesn’t think of deterrence the same way the US does

Daniel E. Mouton: The US needs to step up its UAV defenses and hold Iran accountable

Matthew Zais: This attack is the result of the United States’ failed ‘one-Iraq’ policy

R. Clarke Cooper: Any response must be severe and credible—for the sake of the US and its Jordanian partners

Alex Plitsas: The US must thread the needle by responding forcefully without starting a wider war

Ömer Özkizilcik: The US doesn’t have a local partner in Syria that can do its bidding against Iran or Russia

The US failed in believing it was managing Iran and its proxies

For years, most Israeli policymakers believed that the threats from Hamas were being successfully managed, that the likelihood of significant Israeli casualties were low, and that when a military response was provoked, a relatively brief air campaign was only required. Of course, on October 7, 2023, this belief was proved false.

For years, and across multiple administrations, US policymakers similarly tended to believe that the threats from Iran and its proxies and partners were being successfully managed—especially the threats they posed to US forces in the region. Iranian-aligned forces would regularly probe for weaknesses, climb methodically up the escalation ladder, and seek to establish a new normal of de facto “acceptable” behavior. US forces would eventually respond when provoked through targeted air strikes, and US defenses would be enough to protect US soldiers—at least from bodily injury but not from brain trauma, which was downplayed by this administration and its immediate predecessor. With today’s deaths, this belief has also been proved false.

The United States should have responded with greater force earlier in the escalation cycle, and it will have to do so now. But it should keep in mind US strategic objectives for the region and understand Tehran’s.

Tehran’s overall goal is to drive US forces out of the region, and it likely sees 2024 as a year of critical opportunity. Anti-American and pro-Iran sentiments are rising in the context of the war in Gaza. Iranian-aligned parties have already pressured the Iraqi government to launch talks with the United States about a potential withdrawal of US troops. The Biden administration has reportedly considered withdrawing US forces from Syria, though denied it after the news broke. By attacking shipping in the Red Sea, the Houthis have attracted unprecedented support, and are now the target of a US air campaign. Tehran is likely gambling that increasing violence will, eventually, result in the United States either choosing to retreat from the region or being forced to do so by allies. And they undoubtedly recognize that the year may end with the election of Donald Trump, who has long advocated the withdrawal of US forces from much of the region.  

The Biden administration should not allow Tehran this victory. It will have to respond forcibly to this attack, but it should do so in places and in ways that minimize the risk of provoking a wider regional war or forcing the Iraqi government to formally demand the withdrawal of US troops. Instead, it would be wiser to consider options that include pursuing Iranian air and naval assets, forcibly interdicting Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) shipments to its allies, expanding the US air campaign against the Houthis to target their leadership, and comprehensively enforcing US sanctions against Iran. The White House could also consider targeting Iranian—not just proxy—personnel in Syria and eliminating individual IRGC leadership while traveling abroad, akin to what was done against IRGC commander Qasem Soleimani in early 2020. 

William F. Wechsler is the senior director of Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council. His most recent US government position was deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and combatting terrorism.

Target the financial institutions and jurisdictions enabling Iran’s financial activity

In addition to more targeted diplomatic and military measures, sanctions will likely be included in the US response to the drone strike over the weekend that killed three US servicemembers and wounded others. However, when considering additional sanctions targeting Iran and its partners and proxies, the United States may need to look beyond Iran to target the financial institutions and jurisdictions facilitating the financial activity that enables Tehran’s operations.

Iran is the most heavily sanctioned regime in the world. The United Nations, United States, United Kingdom, European Union, Canada, Australia, and partners have levied sanctions on Iran for a range of issues. These include nuclear proliferation, human rights abuses, cybercrime and espionage, destabilizing activity in the Middle East, “transnational repression” (i.e. assassination attempts), support to Russia’s war in Ukraine, and terrorism activity and support to designated terrorist organizations and Shia militant groups. Despite this array of sanctions, the Iranian regime continues to abuse the international financial system to raise, use, and move money to support its operations and prop up its partners and proxies in the region. Clearly, Iran is evading and circumventing these sanctions and the United States needs to get to the crux of the matter: the financial institutions and jurisdictions enabling Iran’s financial activity.

The United States has unique authorities it can use to target these financial facilitators. Specifically, secondary sanctions as they relate to Iran and Section 311 of the US PATRIOT Act. These are complex authorities, but simply put, secondary sanctions compel non-US financial institutions to comply with Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctions or risk being sanctioned themselves. Section 311 is a regulatory rulemaking issued by the US Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) and identifies jurisdictions, financial institutions, or classes of transactions as primary money laundering concerns. These tools are very different and have different legal and evidentiary thresholds that must be met before they can be employed, however they both in effect can cut off a bank’s access to the US financial system and US dollar.

The US Treasury’s January 29 FinCEN 311 action identifying al-Huda Bank in Iraq as an institution of primary money laundering concern, together with OFAC’s supporting designation of al-Huda’s owner, is an example of the type of action the Biden administration needs to take to target the financial institutions enabling Iran’s financial activity and operations. This is a step in the right direction and sends a clear message to banks and jurisdictions that the United States is willing to take necessary action to protect its financial system while disrupting Iran’s terrorist activity and support for terrorism. This needs to be the first step, not the last. US policymakers have the tools and authorities to combat Iran’s terrorist financing and to target the financial institutions and jurisdictions that are enabling it. Secondary sanctions and Section 311 tools need to be considered in the US response to the drone attacks that killed our troops.

Kimberly Donovan is the director of the Economic Statecraft Initiative within the Atlantic Council’s GeoEconomics Center. She previously served in the federal government for fifteen years, most recently as the acting associate director of FinCEN’s Intelligence Division and its chief of staff and senior advisor to the director.

It’s time to take on the threat from Iran—not just its proxies

Tower 22, where three US servicemembers were killed and dozens injured in a drone attack, sits on the Jordanian side of the border with Syria and only a few kilometers from the Iraqi one. The attack almost certainly reflects an increased risk tolerance by Tehran in its effort for influence and control in the region. Unlike the Houthis, who have their own agenda and Iran lacks full control over, Syrian and Iraq-based Shia militants are largely responsive to Tehran and would be unlikely to carry out such an attack without at least the implicit support and approval of senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) leaders. Therefore, the broader challenge for the Biden administration is going to be how to address the Iranian threat, not just the Shia militant one emanating from Iraq and Syria.

Iran’s leadership probably calculates that the United States will be reticent to fulsomely respond in any manner that would risk escalation of tensions in the Middle East and spark the region-wide war the Biden administration has admirably tried to prevent over the past three months. But with the death of multiple US service members, the Biden administration will need to reconsider its stance and decide whether hostilities have now crossed the Rubicon and the United States is already in a regional conflict. 

The natural conclusion is that this will not be the last attack on US forces. There is strong evidence for such a determination. Consider the pattern so far: first, the plethora of recent Houthi attacks against US and allied targets—which led the United States, once it ran out of patience, to put together the counter-Houthi Operation Prosperity Guardian; second, attacks injuring US forces by Iraqi Shia militants as recently as last month; and now, third, an attack by Shia militants on US forces in Jordan. 

What’s different in this case, marking a further escalation, is that Jordan, unlike Iraq and Syria, is not host to Iran-backed Shia militant bases. Unless evidence is produced that the drone attack was a mistake or an accident, both highly unlikely, then this was an attack on not only US forces but also on the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, a critical US ally.

The determination that we’re now in a regional conflict, in which US troops are likely to continue to be under threat, would require US policymakers to undertake a more fulsome response to restore deterrence. Iran has shown time and again a willingness to put its Arab partners and proxies at risk, but not the same willingness for the country’s own forces and security to be in jeopardy. Israel and Iran have long been engaged in a shadow war. The United States needs to determine if it’s in one as well and respond accordingly.

Jonathan Panikoff is the director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative. He is a former deputy national intelligence officer for the Near East at the US National Intelligence Council. The views expressed in this publication are the author’s and do not imply endorsement by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Intelligence Community, or any other US government agency.

The US could hit back against Iran’s navy, top leadership, or nuclear program

In recent weeks, Iran has waged a shadow war against the United States and its interests in the Middle East, and now three US service personnel are dead and dozens more injured. The United States has been cautious in its response to this point because it feared “escalation,” but this logic was misguided. Iran learned that it could attack with impunity, and US caution only invited more aggression. Deterrence works by convincing an adversary that the costs to attacking the United States and its allies and interests greatly outweighs any conceivable benefits. Deterrence has now failed, and the United States needs to execute its deterrent threat. It needs to follow through and impose a significant cost on Iran that outweighs the perceived benefits of aggression—as Tehran calculates it. It needs to convince Tehran that attacking the United States and its interests is too costly. This means the United States should hit Iran hard. 

Washington could sink the Iranian navy, like then President Ronald Reagan did in the 1980s. It could strike Iranian naval bases. It could target Iranian leadership, following in the footsteps of then President Donald Trump’s killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani. It could seize this opportunity to degrade Iran’s nuclear and missile program—which must be addressed soon regardless, as the Pentagon estimates its nuclear breakout timeline to be only twelve days. These actions would convey to Iran that it badly miscalculated and that attacking the United States was a foolish decision that should not be repeated. Only when this is made clear will the Islamic Republic restrain its desire to sow chaos throughout the region. Another surgical strike directly against the proxies involved would be a mistake. It would be read in Tehran as a sign of weakness and simply stoke a continued cycle of violence.

Matthew Kroenig is vice president and senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and the Council’s director of studies. He formerly worked on Iran policy in the US intelligence community and the US Department of Defense.

Stop self-deterring and take the gloves off with Iran

For months, the United States has stood by while the Iranian regime’s terror proxies have taken shot after shot at US servicemembers in the region, seemingly from a misplaced fear that a decisive response would provoke yet more violence from Tehran. Today, the bill for this failure to establish deterrence tragically came due. It is long past time to stop self-deterring and take the gloves off. The Biden administration needs to hold the Islamic Republic accountable for this outrage—not just the proxies it hides behind, but the Islamic Republic itself. Unless those responsible for this campaign of violence—above all, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps—are made to pay a steep price, Tehran will conclude that it can kill Americans with impunity and deadly attacks like these will continue. The way to avoid getting dragged into another war in the Middle East is not to signal caution and restraint, but to demonstrate our will to defend our people and our interests.

Nathan Sales is a nonresident senior fellow with the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative and a former US ambassador-at-large and coordinator for counterterrorism.

The attack came as the US and Iraq are negotiating on US troop presence

The escalation of hostilities between the United States and Iraqi armed groups is reaching a perilous state. There are two differences between the January 28 drone attack and the previous hostilities: First, the recent attack claimed the lives of three US servicemembers and wounded more than thirty others, according to early reports. Second, it was carried out in Jordan, not in Iraq or Syria, where previous attacks have taken place. The killing of US personnel will put the Biden administration under considerable pressure to retaliate, particularly at this time when the administration is facing many domestic and international challenges. As to the choice of location, it represents a dangerous sign of the possibility of the conflict’s expansion to new parts of the Middle East.

There was a sense of optimism after the United States agreed to negotiate the presence of the military coalition in Iraq. The Iraqi government, which also faces domestic and regional pressures because of the presence of foreign troops, framed the news of the coming negotiations as a prelude to the withdrawal of all foreign troops. But the Pentagon denied any intent to withdraw the troops and affirmed that the upcoming negotiations will be to replace the international coalition with bilateral security agreements. In the words of Pentagon Deputy Press Secretary Sabrina Singh on January 25, “Let me be clear, the HMC [Higher Military Commission] meeting is not a negotiation about the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq.” The narratives of the Iraqi and the US governments on the nature of the upcoming talks are diametrically opposed, giving a pretext to armed groups in Iraq to use violent means for achieving their stated goal of forcing a US withdrawal from Iraq.

As we gather the facts about the recent drone attack, all eyes will be on the nature of the response the Biden administration will make, considering factors such as the target, time, and place. Biden’s track record in the Middle East, from the Israel-Hamas war to the Red Sea crisis, Syria, and Iraq, have yielded counterproductive results. Whether he will take some necessary corrective measures and seek fresh perspectives or double down on the current course may well decide the future of the United States’ standing in the Middle East.

Abbas Kadhim is director of the Atlantic Council’s Iraq Initiative. Follow him on X: @DrAbbasKadhim.

The US should deliver a strategic blow to Iran’s capabilities in eastern Syria

The Iran-proxy drone attack on Tower 22, a US military installation on the Jordan-Syria border crossing servicing US forces at the Al-Tanf base in eastern Syria, comes after more than 150 similar attacks against US positions in Syria and Iraq since October 7, 2023. While the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, an umbrella for Iranian proxies in Iraq, claimed the attack was a response to Israel’s war on Gaza, it is undeniably also part of a larger escalation Iranian proxies have been leading against US positions in Syria and Iraq since late 2022. (The group did not specify whether it used Iraqi or Syrian territory to launch its attack.) It is also no coincidence that the attack came days after reports of internal deliberations within the Biden administration about US withdrawal from Syria, which would serve Iranian interests in Syria above all else. Tha attack also came ahead of the Arba’in (forty-day anniversary) of the killing of IRGC commander Qasem Soleimani, a religious tradition that Iran had utilized to mobilize support for its proxies across Shia communities.

The United States’ reluctance to pursue brinkmanship in response to Iranian proxy attacks has led to Iran’s escalations today. While the United States has likely engaged with Israel on its strategy of targeting Iranian assets in Syria, only a US-defined response can establish deterrence. With the United States reluctant to lead such deterrence, even the Israeli-led assassinations of senior IRGC leaders in Syria in the last few weeks proved ineffective in deterring Iran. 

In deliberating its response, the Biden administration must re-establish deterrence with Iran more forcefully and strategically than it previously did when the United States assassinated Soleimani in January 2020. Such deterrence should have an irreversible effect on Iran’s capabilities in the region, while ensuring it doesn’t escalate the situation into a direct war with Iran. The United States could deliver a strategic blow to Iran’s capabilities in eastern Syria, upending the strategic Iraq-Syria-Lebanon land corridor, that may prove beneficial to US positioning in the region, to regional allies, and to many of the region’s chronic conflicts in Syria and Lebanon.

Qutaiba Idlbi is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs where he leads the Syria portfolio.

Iran doesn’t think of deterrence the same way the US does

This time, the United States will retaliate, but the question is against whom and how hard. One consideration US policymakers need to have in the front of mind is that the Iranian regime doesn’t believe in deterrence the way US policymakers and strategists do. Iran follows a peculiar sense of symmetry and it is quite willing to keep urging its proxies to attack US troops in order to drive the United States out of the Middle East. Carefully calibrated US attacks on proxy militias have not succeeded in stopping these attacks.

The United States needs to understand that it will have to take a carefully thought-out, precise shot at significantly reducing Iran’s strategic power. Attack options in Iraq are limited without political blowback that could hand Iran the strategic victory. Options outside of Iran proper are limited and would probably require committing ground troops that the Biden administration has been reluctant to commit. 

This leaves one option: attacking Iran itself, as previous US administrations have done. The Clinton administration’s June 26, 1993, cruise missile attack on the Iraqi Mukhabarat headquarters comes immediately to mind as an analogy. An attack on IRGC Quds Force headquarters in Iran would be comparable to that—even though, notably, the 1993 nighttime strike against the Iraqi intelligence service that was behind an assassination attempt of former US President George H.W. Bush was timed to occur when as few people as possible would be in the building.

The other obvious option is to clear out Iranian proxies and any IRGC personnel operating in southeastern Syria. Done right, Iranian proxies would not have the ability to launch further strikes from Syrian territory at least—although the strike against US forces in Jordan may have come from Iraq. Even so, these proxy freely cross the Iraq-Syria border. Clearing Iranian proxies out of southeastern Syria would take away one of Iran’s proxy capabilities. But while an air-only option is possible, it would probably take US ground forces to deliver a significant enough blow to Iranian capabilities.

Time and luck have run out for the United States. Neither of these options are good, and both risk keeping the United States embroiled in a regional conflict that the Biden administration was hoping to avoid.

Thomas S. Warrick is the director of the Future of DHS project at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security’s Forward Defense practice and a nonresident senior fellow and the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council.

The US needs to step up its UAV defenses and hold Iran accountable

Today’s Iranian-linked militant attack that killed three US servicemembers and wounded at least twenty-five is as tragic as it was inevitable. Iran and its proxies have mounted attacks against the United States and its partners in the Middle East region for years. At times, this campaign took the form of a direct attack, such as Iran’s immediate response to the killing of Qassem Soleimani. But the majority of the attacks occurred through Iranian proxy channels, such as previous Houthi attacks against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Hamas and Lebanese Hezbollah attacks against Israel, and Shia militia groups’ strikes against US forces in Iraq and Syria.

The US response to these Iranian affiliated attacks has relied on three factors: First, the United States has responded with commensurate force. Second, the United States has warned Iran about the risks of escalation. Third, the United States improved its defenses on its various bases in the Middle East. Unfortunately, the US approach has two main drawbacks. The first is that Iran does not have full control over its various proxies in the region. In the case of smaller, dispersed militia groups, a lack of Iranian control also has the advantage of giving Iran a degree of deniability for an attack. The second problem with the US approach is that threats have multiplied and defenses against the full range of potential attacks will never be perfect. The Iranian-affiliated March 2023 unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) attack that killed a US contractor and wounded several servicemembers demonstrated that there are gaps in US base defenses. 

Although the US Department of Defense worked on improving its approach to countering UAVs since 2021, it’s clear that the department’s most recent strategy to counter UAVs has not yet resulted in a comprehensive material production, fielding, and training plan to protect US forces from UAV attack. Until the United States is able to both commit the resources to counter the sort of complex aerial attacks occurring in the Middle East (and Ukraine), and is willing to hold Iran accountable for Iranian material-origin attacks, be prepared to see attacks against US forces continue.

Daniel E. Mouton is a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative of the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs. He served on the National Security Council from 2021 to 2023 as the director for defense and political-military policy for the Middle East and North Africa for Coordinator Brett McGurk.

This attack is the result of the United States’ failed ‘one-Iraq’ policy

The tragic death of three US servicemembers at the hands of Iran-backed militias is a direct consequence of the United States’ failed “one-Iraq” policy, which has sought to keep power over a unified Iraq centered in Baghdad. Most of the more than 150 militia attacks in Iraq and Syria over the past several months have been conducted by members of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), which receives official Iraqi government funding of more than $2.7 billion per year. However, the United States has been reluctant to deter Iran or the Iraqi government, which is backed by Iran-aligned parties. 

Through its “one-Iraq” policy, the administration is desperately trying to prop up an Iran-backed government in Baghdad that is slowly eroding US-designed federalism at the expense of Iraq’s marginalized Sunnis and Kurds. As a result, the Iraqi government has faced little public scrutiny, while being the financial hub of Iran’s most aggressive proxies in the region. Meanwhile, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, a stalwart US security partner for more than thirty years, also faces these attacks and remains in the balance of the United States’ reluctance to deter Iran or reevaluate the reality of “one Iraq.”

Matthew Zais is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative. He is also the vice president of government affairs for Hillwood and HKN Energy Ltd.

Any response must be severe and credible—for the sake of the US and its Jordanian partners

The heinous attack on US forces this weekend requires a kinetic and proportional response to reestablish deterrence and prevent further attacks against US troops. Belligerent states and their proxies will continue to test the commitment and security cooperation of US partners if the United States does not hold the Iranian regime accountable for its state-sponsored terrorism. For deterrence to work, two conditions should be present: severity and credibility. Severity entails threatening a prospective opponent with a retaliation that would outweigh any potential benefits they could hope to gain from attacking, and this has yet to be applied by the Biden administration.

The attack also affirms the need for the United States to continue its stalwart support for Jordanian security forces to be a fully capable counterterrorism partner. US security cooperation with Jordan bolsters the countries’ shared interests and enhances regional security and stability. The Jordanian military is one of the largest recipients of Washington’s foreign military financing, and for good reason. The kingdom has hundreds of US trainers and is one of the few regional partners that hold extensive exercises with US troops throughout the year.

Since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011, the United States has provided significant security assistance and capacity-building resources for Jordan to protect its sovereignty and combat the transregional threats from Tehran-sponsored proxies in Syria and Iraq. Long-term security assistance to meet the shared adversity of terrorism must not be put at risk by the threatening posture posed against the United States and its security partner, Jordan.

R. Clarke Cooper is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative. He previously served as the assistant secretary for political-military affairs at the US Department of State from 2019 to 2021.

The US must thread the needle by responding forcefully without starting a wider war

The latest attack on US forces in the Middle East at the hands of Iranian-backed militants is the 158th since Hamas’s October 7 terrorist attack in Israel and the subsequent war in Gaza. The significance of this attack is that for the first time, US troops have been killed, which is a serious escalation. Three US troops died, and dozens more have been wounded. Early reports indicate that an Iranian-backed militia in Iraq, Kataib Hezbollah, is responsible for the lethal drone attack.

All of the attacks to date have been designed to kill but have failed to succeed until now. These attacks appear to be part of a broader strategy that the Iranian regime is employing to put pressure on the United States to end the war in Gaza. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian publicly stated in October 2023 that the United States would be made to feel pain if the war in Gaza continued.

Iran has helped to build, support, arm, fund, and/or direct proxy forces across the Middle East, together known as the “axis of resistance,” to carry out Iran’s objectives while giving the regime plausible deniability. The axis includes Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, Ansar Allah (Houthi rebels) in Yemen, and militias in Iraq and Syria. They have attacked US forces in the region, shut down international shipping in the Red Sea, and hit targets in Israel.

To date, US responses to these attacks have been limited to strikes against targets in Yemen and IRGC weapons depots for militias in Iraq and Syria. They have been insufficient to reestablish deterrence and prevent further attacks against US troops.

The United States will have to respond militarily to this lethal attack, but a proportional response targeting proxy forces is unlikely to deter additional attacks against US troops. Iran has been allowed to maintain plausible deniability, even though there is overwhelming evidence of its complicity in these attacks that at a minimum includes funding and arming, if not direction.

The question for Biden administration officials at this point is whether or not they are going to continue to allow Iran to maintain plausible deniability or if they will hold it directly accountable for its actions. A failure to do so to date has contributed to a lack of deterrence and emboldened hostile actors in the region.

The challenge for those crafting the US response is to ensure that it is significant enough to prevent additional attacks on US forces while also not starting another war in the region. This is why the United States and its allies must hold adversaries accountable at lower levels of deterrence to prevent movement up the escalation ladder that would bring the Middle East to the precipice of a regional war.

Alex Plitsas is a nonresident senior fellow with the Middle East Programs’ N7 Initiative and former chief of sensitive activities for special operations and combating terrorism in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

The US doesn’t have a local partner in Syria that can do its bidding against Iran or Russia

The US strategy in Syria is based on the partnership decision in 2014 that looked for an anti-ISIS local force that did not have a hostile relationship with Iran. Now, this decision shows its price. Usually, actors in Syria attack each other indirectly by attacking their Syrian partners or by responding via their proxy. This unwritten rule of engagement has helped the intervening third parties limit escalation costs. In the same spirit, Iran isn’t attacking the US military directly but via its Shia militias. The United States, on the other hand, is being directly attacked and has to respond itself. The United States doesn’t have a local partner in Syria that can do its bidding against Iran or Russia. Therefore, any escalation from Moscow or Tehran in Syria puts US soldiers directly in danger. The United States doesn’t support the Syrian rebels hostile to Iran since it stopped giving them covert aid in 2017.

Iran knows this simple reality, has employed a strategy of controlled escalation, and is testing the limits. Iran knows that any reaction from Washington may prompt a domestic response in the United States, especially before the upcoming elections. Slowly but steadily, Iran is stepping up the escalation. The Iranian strategy since the Gaza conflict is a spiral of violence in which Iran employs expendable militias at the forefront, but US servicemembers are the primary target. The absence of local US partners willing to fight Iran-backed Shia militias limits the options of the United States. Whether the United States does nothing or responds, some of the US electorate will question why US forces are deployed in Syria. And Iran bets on this domestic reaction to fulfill its goal: Push the United States out of Syria and Iraq and fill the void left.

Ömer Özkizilcik is a nonresident fellow for the Syria Project in the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs.

Further reading

Related Experts: Jonathan Panikoff, Nathan Sales, Daniel E. Mouton, Matthew Zais, Matthew Kroenig, Qutaiba Idlbi, R. Clarke Cooper, Alex Plitsas, Kimberly Donovan, William F. Wechsler, Abbas Kadhim, Thomas S. Warrick, and Ömer Özkizilcik

Image: US President Joe Biden delivers remarks at South Carolina’s First in the Nation Dinner at the State Fairgrounds in Columbia, South Carolina, U.S., January 27, 2024. REUTERS/Tom Brenner