As the United States mulls its response to a drone attack that killed three U.S. troops and injured at least 34, it treads a risky line, where any misstep could embroil Washington and its allies more deeply in a war with Iran and its proxies.
Biden has vowed retaliation following the Sunday attack that was claimed by the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, an umbrella group for Iranian-linked militias including Kataib Hezbollah and Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba. Speaking to CNBC on Monday morning, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the United States would react “in a time in a manner of our choosing.”
“We don’t want a wider war with Iran,” he said. “We don’t want a wider war in the region, but we’ve got to do what we have to do.” The United States has not confirmed that the Islamic Resistance carried out the attack, and Kirby said Monday that Washington is still working through the intelligence. However, the attack “clearly had all the earmarks” of a group or groups supported by Kataib Hezbollah, he said.
U.S. faces growing challenge in bid to contain Middle East violence
Israel’s military operations in Gaza and their enormous civilian toll — more than 26,000 Palestinians have been killed since Oct. 7, according to the Gaza Health Ministry — have reverberated across the strife-torn region, challenging Washington’s attempts to keep the violence contained.
The U.S. deaths on Sunday in Jordan were the first in more than 170 attacks on U.S. military bases in the region, mainly Syria and Iraq, since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, according to the Institute for the Study of War.
The United States has carried out dozens of attacks in retaliation, including one in Baghdad that killed a senior Nujaba commander. But with American blood now spilled, the message of deterrence is expected to be more robust, raising the danger of further escalation in a region where conflict is already in full swing in several places.
Driving home the complexity of the multifront conflict, more cross-border strikes were reported in the region Monday morning: Iraqi militias claimed to have targeted Israel, while Iran and Syria accused Israel of striking in Damascus. The United States has already been drawn into military intervention, repeatedly bombing Iranian-linked Houthis in Yemen in response to their blocking of international shipping routes in what they say is retaliation against Israel.
The killing of the U.S. soldiers adds “further anxiety that a regional war is actually here,” said Sanam Vakil, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at London’s Chatham House think tank. The chances of containment all hinge on “who, what, when and how the Biden administration responds,” she said, adding that she expected “surgical” U.S. strikes against Iranian-linked assets outside Iran to follow.
Iran, for its part, tried to distance itself from the attack.
“The resistance groups in the region do not take orders from the Islamic Republic of Iran in their decisions and actions,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani. He described the accusations against Tehran as “baseless.”
Kanaani said Iran has worked to calm regional tensions “through diplomatic means,” but he accused the United States of “exacerbating insecurity” by maintaining a military presence in Iraq, Syria and launching strikes on Yemen.
The United States has stationed a few thousand troops in Iraq and Syria for nearly 10 years with the stated mission of preventing the resurgence of the Islamic State group.
The actions though proxies give Iran a cloak of plausible deniability, said Vakil.
“Iran certainly is trying to take advantage of the war in Gaza to showcase its transnational axis,” Vakil said, adding that “at the same time Iran itself doesn’t want to bear the cost of sponsoring the axis.” Tehran is banking on the fact that the Biden administration doesn’t want to see the war spread, she said, but it is a “very dangerous gamble.”
Escalation concerns within the Biden administration surged in recent weeks and spurred a renewed diplomatic push to get Israel and Hamas back to the negotiating table, according to two officials briefed on the talks.
U.S. officials began increasing pressure on Israel and Hamas to reach an agreement after a spike in Red Sea attacks triggered a U.S.-led bombing campaign against Houthi rebels, the officials said. Both officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive negotiations.
The proposal that Hamas and Israel are considering calls for a lengthy pause in fighting and a phased hostage release that U.S. officials are hopeful could evolve into a permanent cease-fire. The Biden administration is eager to cool regional hostilities and shift the focus back its ambitious diplomatic effort to normalize ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Houthi rebels have said the Red Sea attacks will cease once the war in Gaza ends.
It is still unclear whether there may be direct blowback for Tehran, as pressure grows on Washington to act more robustly. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also claims that Israel faces an existential threat from Iran’s nuclear program and its proxies.
Earlier this month, Iran accused Israel of carrying out a strike on the Syrian capital, Damascus, which it said killed five Iranian military advisers. Israel has not confirmed or denied the attack, but Netanyahu has said Israel is “acting against Iran all the time, everywhere.”
The high-stakes diplomatic scramble to avert an Israel-Lebanon war
It’s just one of multiple spheres of conflict. While Hezbollah has so far appeared to show little desire to escalate a war with Israel and diplomats scramble to avert all-out war on that front, the two sides have been regularly trading fire over the border between southern Lebanon and northern Israel.
Iraqi militias showed little sign that they planned to relent on Monday, as the Islamic Resistance announced its drone attack within Israel. The group said in a statement that a dawn strike targeted a “Zionist military base” in retaliation for “massacres” committed against Palestinians in Gaza, without giving further details. Israeli military declined to comment on whether any strikes or infiltration of its airspace had occurred.
Syrian state media later said Israel launched an air attack from the direction of the Golan Heights, “targeting on a number of points south of Damascus.” It added that material damage was incurred and a number of citizens were killed and injured, but did not offer any specifics.
How Israel’s war in Gaza became a tangled crisis spanning the Middle East
The office of Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed al-Sudani urged an “end to the cycle of violence” on Monday. “Iraq expresses readiness to work on establishing fundamental rules to avoid further repercussions in the region and prevent the widening of the conflict,” according to a statement. “The impact of these developments threatens regional and international peace and security, undermines efforts against terrorism and drugs, and jeopardizes trade, economy, and energy supplies.”
Iraq and the United States also held the first round of talks Saturday regarding the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, according to the prime minister’s office.
But Iran’s “Axis of Resistance is demonstrating its readiness to sustain and even further escalate its campaign, despite the United States and Iraqi federal government announcing that they will negotiate over the status of U.S. forces in Iraq,” the Institute for the Study of War said in a research note Sunday.
About 350 troops are stationed at the base that was targeted Sunday, The Washington Post reported. A U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the incident said the drone struck the living quarters of the base and caused injuries that ranged from cuts and bruises to brain trauma.
Eight personnel were evacuated out of Jordan “for higher level care, but they are in stable condition,” U.S. Central Command said in a statement. The identities of those slain were not disclosed pending family notifications.
Mustafa Salim in Baghdad, Sarah Dadouch in Beirut, Niha Masih in Seoul and Dan Lamothe, Missy Ryan, Alex Horton and Adam Taylor in Washington contributed to this report.