Biden seeks to walk fine line with Syria strike
With his first known military strike, President Biden sought to send a strong message to Iran while attempting to avoid further escalation.
Biden ordered the Thursday strike on facilities used by Iran-backed militants in Syria in response to several recent rocket attacks on U.S. interests in Iraq suspected to have been carried out by the militias.
The target appeared calibrated to tell Iran to knock it off without the situation spiraling out of control as the administration seeks to save space for diplomacy with Tehran in order to revive the 2015 nuclear deal.
“Somewhere there’s a nice, happy middle between taking out someone like [Qassem] Soleimani and showing that you mean business,” Barry Pavel, director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, said, referring to the Iranian general killed in a drone strike ordered by former President Trump.
“This was meant to say, ‘we mean business, you can’t continue to push us around and attack us through proxies. You will pay a price,’ ” Pavel added of Biden’s strike. “It’s a very different approach than the Trump administration. As I said, discriminate, calibrated and focused use of force for particular military interests.”
Biden’s action won praise from some of the Republicans who had been criticizing his diplomatic overtures to Iran and from certain Democrats who saw it as a limited, proportionate response. But other Democrats questioned the legality of the strikes, saying they would not shy away from demanding the same answers they did when Trump took military action without congressional approval.
For his part, Biden said the strike was meant to send the message that “you can’t act with impunity.”
“Be careful,” he told reporters while in Houston on Friday.
The airstrikes hit way stations used by two Iran-backed militias to transport weapons, personnel and supplies across the border from Syria into Iraq.
The strike was conducted by two F-15E fighter jets, which dropped seven precision-guided munitions, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said.
It completely destroyed nine facilities and damaged two others, making them “functionally destroyed,” Kirby added. The Pentagon had “preliminary indications” Friday there were casualties, but Kirby declined to elaborate because the damage assessment was not finished.
“I think the strike sends a message to anyone in the region, to all adversaries in the region — organizations, people, leaders that are operating in ways that are inimical to the security and stability of the region and to our interests into those of our partners — that we will defend ourselves, that we will protect our interests,” Kirby said.
“We’re certainly going to act to protect our people and the forces of our allies and partners,” he added. “That is an unambiguous, clear message to anyone in the region about what the stakes are if you’re going to continue to conduct attacks on our people and the Iraqi people.”
Biden ordered the strike after three recent rocket attacks in Iraq, including one in Erbil that killed a non-American contractor working with U.S. forces and injured several U.S. contractors and a U.S. service member.
Immediately after the rocket attacks, the Biden administration held off on assigning blame, leading to some speculation it was attempting to keep temperatures with Tehran low as it seeks to revive the Iran nuclear deal.
The Trump administration had been quick to blame Tehran after similar rocket attacks, but retaliation at one point brought the United States and Iran to the brink of war.
In late 2019, the U.S. military carried out strikes in Iraq and Syria against an Iran-backed militia in response to a rocket attack that killed a U.S. contractor. The tit-for-tat escalated until Trump’s drone strike on Soleimani, followed by an Iranian missile strike in Iraq that injured more than 100 U.S. troops.
The Trump administration also struck the militia in Iraq last March after a rocket attack killed two U.S. troops and a British service member. But fallout from that was minimal, as both the United States and Iran were instead turning their attention to the coronavirus pandemic.
Biden has accepted an invitation from the European Union to participate in talks with Iran and other signatories of the Obama-era nuclear deal. The president has said he would rejoin the agreement, which was withdrawn from by Trump, if Iran comes back into compliance.
Since Trump withdrew, Iran has violated the deal’s limits on enriching and stockpiling uranium, and it recently limited access for international nuclear inspectors. Tehran is insisting the United States lift Trump-imposed sanctions before it comes back into compliance.
Amid Biden’s diplomatic overtures, Republicans have been warning him against lifting the sanctions. But after Thursday night’s strikes, some of those same critics praised Biden for signaling to Iran he will not tolerate threats to U.S. personnel.
“Last night, the U.S. showed that attacks on American personnel and interests will not be tolerated,” Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement. “I support President Biden’s response to provocation from Iranian-backed militias. We must defend our interests abroad, and I hope the Biden Administration continues to apply pressure to deter future aggression from Iran and its proxies.”
The top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.), similarly praised Biden’s “correct, proportionate response to protect American lives.”
Still, Inhofe added, “the fact that Iran chose to escalate shortly after the administration declared its desire to resume negotiations with Tehran has not gone unnoticed.”
“I hope the administration rethinks its current negotiating strategy with Iran and works with Congress on a bipartisan approach that will address Iran’s support for terrorism, as well as its nuclear and ballistic missiles program,” he said. “We cannot lift sanctions on a country that continues to target Americans and our allies for murder.”
But the strike is unlikely to imperil diplomacy with Iran over the nuclear deal, said Pavel, a former Pentagon official.
There’s a possibility Iran will initially rebuff talks after the strike, but it’s ultimately in its interest to return to the accord and get sanctions lifted, he said.
“So regardless of this, that doesn’t change their calculation about that. Same with the U.S., the Biden administration at least. It is in U.S. interests to go back and constrain Iran’s nuclear program,” Pavel said.
Progressive Democrats, meanwhile, were dismayed Biden turned to military action, blasting him particularly for not seeking congressional authorization beforehand.
“There is absolutely no justification for a president to authorize a military strike that is not in self-defense against an imminent threat without congressional authorization. We need to extricate from the Middle East, not escalate, ” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) said in a statement. “I spoke against endless war with Trump, and I will speak out against it when we have a Democratic president.”
The White House cited Biden’s authority under Article II of the Constitution to defend U.S. personnel as the domestic legal authority for the strike. Under international law, the administration cited Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, which allows for self-defense if attacked.
“We had a rigorous process to include legal review of the strikes conducted,” a National Security Council (NSC) spokesperson said.
“The targets were chosen to correspond to the recent attacks — the facilities are utilized by KSS and KH – and to deter the risk of additional attacks over the coming weeks,” they added, using the acronyms for two Iran-backed militias blamed in the Iraq attacks: Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada.
The Pentagon briefed congressional leadership before the strike, and administration officials were briefing individual members and staff Friday, the White House said.
There will also be a full classified briefing to lawmakers early next week or “sooner if Congress wants it,” the NSC spokesperson added.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) supported the strike as a “proportional and appropriate” response to the recent rocket attacks, but stressed the need for diplomacy.
“While the military strike was necessary to protect our personnel in the region and deter further attacks, I have spoken with the Biden administration’s national security team, and they are committed to using diplomacy and engagement with Iran, and also working with our allies and partners in the region to de-escalate tensions going forward,” he said in statement. “I strongly support this effort.”