- Dec 14, 2008
Mideast Challenges Mount for U.S. as Its Forces Come Under Renewed Fire
Renewed Iran-backed pressure on U.S. forces in Syria was a sign of Washington’s challenges as it seeks to pull back from the Middle East while Russia and China gain influence.
Mount for U.S. as Its Forces Come Under Renewed Fire
The Middle East’s shifting geopolitics, coming amid gains by China and Russia, are complicating Washington’s plans in the region
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Photo Composite: Diana Chan
By Michael R. Gordon
in Washington, Dion Nissenbaum
in Tel Aviv and Jared Malsin
Updated March 25, 2023 12:42 am ET
Iranian-backed militias brushed aside U.S. warnings and mounted fresh attacks that brought two U.S. sites in eastern Syria under fire and injured an American service member, a U.S. official said Friday.
The previous day, Iranian-backed groups mounted a drone attack that killed a U.S. contractor and wounded five service members and another contractor.
The new attacks involve rocket strikes on Mission Support Site Conoco, a small outpost in northeast Syria where the U.S. service member was hurt. That service member is now in stable condition, the U.S. official said.
Additionally, there were a series of drone attacks on Green Village, a base in eastern Syria where U.S. personnel are also deployed, the U.S. official said. Two drones were shot down but some got through.
The militia actions have continued as President Biden said Friday that his administration would act if American troops came under fire.
“The United States does not—does not, I emphasize—seek conflict with Iran,” Mr. Biden said Friday during a joint press conference in Ottawa with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. But he said the U.S. is prepared “to act forcefully to protect our people.”
The National Security Council declined to comment and referred questions to the Pentagon, which didn’t immediately respond.
Earlier Friday, Iran-backed militias fired 10 rockets at the Green Village base but no American or coalition personnel were hurt, according to the U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East.
The rise in attacks, which U.S. officials have attributed to groups backed and equipped by Iran, has raised the question whether the Biden administration has acted forcefully enough to deter them.
The renewed pressure from Iran-backed militias illustrates Washington’s challenges as it seeks to pull back from the Middle East while the influence of geopolitical rivals China and Russia is growing in the region.
The series of tit-for-tat strikes began Thursday when militants carried out a drone attack on U.S. forces near Hasakah in northeast Syria, killing an American contractor and wounding six other Americans. The U.S. accused Iran of backing the attacks and sent two F-15Es to bomb two sites it said were used by Iran-backed forces in Syria to store vehicles and aviation equipment, a U.S. official said.
Hours later, militants fired the 10 rockets at Green Village in eastern Syria, including one the military said missed by 3 miles and hit a house, injuring two women and two children.
U.S. officials said that one of the three radars at the site near Hasakah that was attacked by the Iranian-made drone Thursday was undergoing maintenance at the time. But U.S. officials believe the functioning radars still provided overlapping coverage. The measures to protect the site will be part of the U.S. military’s after-action investigation.
The unusually intense uptick in violence follows a China-brokered deal two weeks ago for Saudi Arabia and Iran to resume relations and separate Russia-mediated talks for Saudi Arabia and Syria to restore ties, putting U.S. foes in the center of regional politics once dominated by America.
The U.S. is still the pre-eminent political and military force in the Middle East, analysts said, but shifting geopolitical alignments are complicating a bipartisan Washington effort to extricate American interests from the region and turn the focus toward great power contests with Russia and China. Those countries’ rise in the Middle East, and continued conflict with Iranian proxies, will test the U.S.’s commitment to the region.
“The U.S. isn’t being pushed out of the region. It’s the U.S. that wants to decrease its influence,” said Omar Al-Ubaydli, president of the Bahrain Economists Society. “The policy community in Washington likes to imagine that everyone in the region will cohabit peacefully in an organic way, but the reality is that, by decreasing its influence, it creates a window for China and Russia to increase their influence.”
The events come 20 years after the U.S. launched its “shock and awe” invasion of Iraq, a transformative moment that demonstrated both America’s willingness to use military force to project influence and its inability to shape the aftermath of war. Two decades of conflict in the Middle East created a sense of fatigue in the U.S.
“America is definitely losing the ability to exclusively shape the direction in the region,” said Yasmine Farouk, a nonresident fellow with Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, though she noted that the U.S. was still the Middle East’s most powerful security partner.
U.S. leaders have signaled their commitment to protecting both the U.S.’s own troops and Middle East nations from threats posed by Iran and its proxies. The U.S. military has about 900 soldiers stationed in Syria and 2,500 in Iraq as a part of a mission battling the remnants of the Islamic State extremist group.
Iranian-allied militias have waged a slow-burning war on U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria for years, launching rocket and drone strikes on American bases in both countries.
The latest U.S. airstrike was the fourth time the Biden administration has responded militarily to Iranian-backed attacks in Syria and Iraq, U.S. officials say. That has prompted Republican criticism that the administration hasn’t been forceful enough in facing repeated militia attacks.
“Our deterrence against Iran is broken,” Rep. Michael McCaul (R., Texas) who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement Friday.
Biden administration officials said on Friday that the U.S. remained committed to protecting its troops, facilities and allies but also wasn’t looking for a war with Iran or any other country in the Middle East.
“Our focus in Syria is on the Defeat ISIS Mission and that will remain our focus,” said Pentagon spokesman Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder. “We do not seek conflict with Iran, we don’t seek escalation with Iran, but the strikes that we took last night were intended to send a very clear message that we will take the protection of our personnel seriously, and that we will respond quickly and decisively if they are threatened.”
Assaf Orion, a senior researcher at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, said the U.S. needs to flex more military muscle in the Middle East if it wants to regain some of its lost political clout. Under the Biden administration, the U.S. has used military force to strike back at attacks on U.S. bases in the region when an American has been killed.
Since 2021, according to U.S. Central Command, Iran-backed forces have attacked U.S. personnel in the Middle East 78 times. The U.S. has responded with military force three times.
“If any two guys with a rocket can shoot at a U.S. base and get away with it, it doesn’t say much about your readiness to use force to stand for your policies,” Mr. Orion said.
Iran hasn’t given up its ambitions to dislodge the U.S. from its powerful footholds in the Middle East just because it is now engaging more positively with a Washington security partner in Saudi Arabia, said Lina Khatib, the director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House in London.
“The fact that this attack happened shows that Iran is compartmentalizing its engagement with different entities in the region,” she said. “So on the one hand it may try to restore ties with Saudi Arabia but at the same time it may try to attack U.S. bases in Syria.”
Regional leaders have seen the limits of what the U.S. is willing to do to defend partners in the Middle East.
Photo: Fox/Press Pool
For Saudi Arabia, Gulf officials say, the decisive moment came in 2019, when President Donald Trump failed to provide immediate military support to the kingdom after Iran used drones and cruise missiles to attack its oil industry.
For the United Arab Emirates, officials say, the key moment came last year, when the Biden administration was slow to come to the country’s aid when Iran-backed forces in Yemen launched a drone attack on Abu Dhabi, the U.A.E. capital.
Both Gulf nations have sought to exert more independent influence by working with Russia and China.
Middle East nations have also been rattled by America’s diplomatic efforts to contain Iran’s nuclear program. President Barack Obama irritated Israel and the Gulf by brokering the nuclear containment deal in 2015. Mr. Trump upended dynamics by pulling out of the deal three years later and by launching an airstrike that killed a senior Iranian general in January 2020. President Biden’s efforts to resurrect the agreement alarmed Middle East partners before hitting an impasse.
Gulf leaders looked at the American moves and decided that they had to do more to chart an independent course.
“There is a new Gulf emerging, and America has to settle for a more independent, confident Gulf,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati political commentator. “America is still indispensable for security and stability. The Gulf needs America, and America needs the Gulf. We are not yet in a post-America Middle East.”
The U.S. maintains more influence with more formal allies in the Middle East such as Israel, Jordan and Egypt, which receive billions of dollars in U.S. security aid. The U.S. is also central to the difficult efforts to unite Middle East nations that don’t have official relations, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia.
The Biden administration has promoted the idea that the U.S. can best help its Middle East partners by weaving together their security systems into a united regional umbrella to help counter threats from Iran and its proxies. Top U.S. officials have publicly welcomed China’s role in reducing tensions in the Middle East, even though they have privately expressed skepticism about Iran’s commitment to the deal.
“Countries around the world—to include China—if they act responsibly in trying to bring countries together to lessen tensions, reduce conflict, that’s a good thing,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told lawmakers this week.
Benoit Faucon and Gordon Lubold contributed to this article.
Write to Michael R. Gordon at firstname.lastname@example.org, Dion Nissenbaum at email@example.com and Jared Malsin at firstname.lastname@example.org
Appeared in the March 25, 2023, print edition as 'Attacks Add to Mideast Tests For U.S.'.