The recent U.S. airstrikes against Iran-backed militias were the largest President Biden has ordered since he took office, a pointedly large-scale retaliation for a drone attack that killed three U.S. soldiers in Jordan.
But they were also designed as what some officials puckishly call a “Goldilocks” option — large enough to do major damage, but not so big that Iran would feel compelled to respond.
The Friday strikes in Iraq and Syria did considerable damage to missile sites and other installations used by Iran’s allies in those countries. On Saturday, the United States and Britain hit the Iran-supplied Houthi rebels in Yemen who have been attacking international shipping in the Red Sea.
But if the aim was to deter Iran and its proxies once and for all, it’s unlikely to succeed.
The goal of the offensive was more than simple retaliation. It was to destroy as much of the Iranian proxy forces’ weaponry as possible and deter the groups from future attacks — all without igniting a major war with their sponsors in Tehran.
“The goal here is to get these attacks to stop,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said. “We are not looking for a war with Iran.”
In that sense, the operations appeared to succeed, at least in the short run.
Iran condemned the attacks but did not threaten any retaliation. Instead, it warned the United States against attacking two Iranian ships in the Red Sea that are suspected of being used by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Even before the airstrikes, the largest Iran-backed militant group in Iraq announced that it was “suspending” attacks against American targets. (That didn’t spare the group, the Kataib Hezbollah, from being hit.)
But over the long run, Iran and its proxies are almost certain to regroup and look for new opportunities to attack U.S. military installations and other American interests in the region.
The powerful Revolutionary Guard forces are too deeply committed to the goal of expelling the United States from the Middle East to stand down for long. The guard’s Quds Force has spent decades training and equipping pro-Iran militias in nearby countries.
Moreover, the militias in western Iraq and eastern Syria targeted by the airstrikes have their own reasons for continuing to fight: Expelling the United States from the area is their political brand too.
“They’re not robots entirely controlled by Iran,” said Vali Nasr of Johns Hopkins University. “They have become the representation of anti-Americanism in Iraq. Every strike and counterstrike strengthens that [status].”
And the continued presence of more than 6,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, Syria and Jordan — a deployment many Americans probably forgot about until the Jan. 28 drone attack killed three at a desert base — still offers a tempting list of targets.
The troops are there as a consequence of the U.S.-led war against Islamic State, the bloodthirsty terrorist group that seized control of much of Iraq and Syria in 2014. The United States, Iraq and other allies defeated Islamic State on the battlefield in 2019. But remnants of the group still roam the deserts of Syria and Iraq, and some 10,000 of its fighters are marooned in Kurdish-run prisons in northeastern Syria because no country will take them in.
Officially, the American deployment in the desert is there to help Iraqi and Kurdish forces prevent Islamic State from returning. But in recent years, the U.S. units have acquired an additional, unofficial mission: keeping an eye on the Revolutionary Guard and its increasingly capable proxy forces. The small U.S. detachments are not authorized or equipped to fight a war against the guard or anyone else.
The Iranian-backed militias have attacked the American units more than 150 times since October with missiles and drones, most of which have missed their targets.
“The militias were established for exactly this purpose,” said Charles Lister, an expert on Syria at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “They’re local and we’re not. They can afford to pursue a long attrition strategy. We don’t really have a counter to that.”
That has produced a dilemma for U.S. policymakers. The U.S. military presence was never intended to be permanent, but withdrawing now would probably allow Islamic State to resurge.
Republican hawks argue that the problem can be solved easily. “Hit Iran and hit them hard,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). urged last week. But Graham and his colleagues wouldn’t be responsible for the consequences if a major U.S.-Iran war ensued.
That’s why the Biden administration went for what it hopes will turn out to be the Goldilocks option. If the airstrikes do enough damage, the Iran-backed militias will at least have fewer drones and missiles to launch at American targets.
“As usual, there are no good options,” a former senior official said.
The most likely outcome, experts say, is that the militias will pause — but not for long. That’s essentially what happened in 2020 after then-President Trump ordered the assassination of Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the Revolutionary Guard commander, while he was on a visit to Iraq.
At some point, one of those Iran-backed groups is likely to strike again, whether to serve the Islamic Republic’s interest or its own.
The cycle of attack and retaliation will begin anew. That’s how the Middle East works.