For the second time this year, the Biden administration responded to threats to US forces in Iraq by carrying out airstrikes. The second round of strikes occurred early on Monday morning and targeted militia groups with ties to Iran.
The first airstrikes ordered by the current US President took place in late February and also targeted Iran-backed militias in Syria.
Will US Airstrikes Be a Gamechanger for Biden’s MidEast Policy?
Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said that “at President Biden’s direction, US military forces earlier this evening conducted defensive precision airstrikes against facilities used by Iran-backed militia groups in the Iraq-Syria border region.
The targets were selected because these facilities are utilized by Iran-backed militias that are engaged in unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) attacks against US personnel and facilities in Iraq.”
The reason the targeting of these groups is legitimate is that they are being carried out in the border region which is not under Iraqi sovereignty. Iraq hosts the Popular Mobilization Units, pro-Iranian militias which are technically an official paramilitary force.
This means that airstrikes carried out on them are actually on Iraqi territory. These militias have carried out dozens of attacks on US forces in the past. US forces were invited to Iraq in 2014 to help fight ISIS, but since 2017 there have been increasing calls by the militias for the US to pull out.
Since May 2019 there have been increasing attacks, which culminated in the killing of a US contractor in December 2019 and led to US retaliatory airstrikes.
The US has said that it “targeted operational and weapons storage facilities at two locations in Syria and one location in Iraq, both of which lie close to the border between those countries. Several Iran-backed militia groups, including Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH) and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada (KSS), using these facilities.”
Biden is seeking to send a clear message that he will act to protect Americans in Iraq. The most recent attack occurred on Saturday when armed drones, likely flown by pro-Iran militias, targeted Erbil in the autonomous Kurdistan region.
No Americans were injured in the attack and the drones struck areas close to the site of the new US consulate. It was not clear what the target was or if the attack was mean to be a message that Iran and its proxies have the power to strike the consulate.
In the past few months, some 45 attacks have been recorded targeting US forces and facilities. These include logistics convoys linked to the US that the militias assume re-supply the US facilities. It also involved attacks on US contractors at Balad airbase.
Most importantly, back in April, a drone struck a secret CIA hangar at Erbil airport. The usual modus operandi of the militias is to use 107mm or 122mm rockets, but in recent months the drone threat has rapidly increased.
“Given the ongoing series of attacks by Iran-backed groups targeting US interests in Iraq, the President directed further military action to disrupt and deter such attacks.
We are in Iraq at the invitation of the Government of Iraq for the sole purpose of assisting the Iraqi Security Forces in their efforts to defeat ISIS. The United States took necessary, appropriate, and deliberate action designed to limit the risk of escalation – but also to send a clear and unambiguous deterrent message,” the US said.
The US also noted that it has a right to self-defense and that the President took this action pursuant to his Article II authority to protect US personnel in Iraq.
Washington is currently in the middle of a military withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iran wants to pressure the US in Iraq. In addition, Turkey and other players may want to pressure the US’ role in Syria as well.
US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi stated that these were “defensive airstrikes conducted today by the Department of Defense on operational and weapons storage facilities in the Iraq-Syria border region appear to be a targeted and proportional response to a serious and specific threat.”
She added that it was important to protect America’s military. “The Iran-backed militias utilizing these facilities have been engaged in attacks threatening US servicemembers, as well as our allies.
Congress looks forward to receiving and reviewing the formal notification of this operation under the War Powers Act and to receiving additional briefings from the Administration,” she said.
According to expert Michael Knights, an expert in Iraqi military security, the airstrikes that hit near the border town of Albukamal between Syria and Iraq “[do] appear to have space and facilities to be the hub for militia drone development.
This is why it was struck. We can expect the Biden team to have gone non/less-lethal again, trading strictly proportionally. Not sure that will cut it.”
He tweeted that he was “not convinced that hitting drone facilities themselves is very fruitful. These are cheap drones using many dual-use and low-cost systems, Iran is close enough (by land) that resupply is easy and assemblers are replaceable. Only leadership strikes deter.”
On the airstrikes: 1) Qaim / Albu Kamal does appear to have space and facilities to be the hub for militia drone development. This is why it was struck. 2) We can expect the Biden team to have gone non/less-lethal again, trading strictly proportionally. Not sure that will cut it
— Michael Knights (@Mikeknightsiraq) June 28, 2021
His larger point is that drone and rocket attacks have increased this year, and the new drone threat includes at least ten drone attacks with several types of drones.
If the US rate of response is only two retaliatory rounds of strikes in response to dozens of attacks since January, then the US is not deterring the pro-Iran groups. Along with Crispin Smith, he wrote an article at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy regarding the drone threat.
This leaves a major question mark over whether Biden will go further and whether more strikes will occur. It is clear the Biden administration is attempting to justify the strikes to Congress.
However, Iran appears to feel it has the impunity to attack the US, striking secret sites and targeting air defenses and other sensitive areas. While some pro-Iran claims of attacks may be disinformation, the reality is that they appear to have the upper hand.
The US is not prepared to do what the Trump administration did, which was target Qasem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, key leadership figures of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and Popular Mobilization Forces (PMU,) respectively.
This means that the strikes may be more of an example of doing something just so that the US can say that they did something. That would not be a gamechanger and Iran will likely know that.
This then puts the Pentagon and White House in a bind: They know what needs to be done to deter Iran, but they may not want to increase tensions. Instead, officials have told reporters at the Wall Street Journal that the US is withdrawing air defense from the region. That is not a good message to an Iran that increasingly wants to push the US out of the way.
In addition, in May during the 11-day war between Israel and Hamas, a drone was launched from Iraq or Syria and flew into Israeli airspace before being shot down. This means that the threats in Iraq to US forces also run parallel to emerging threats to Israel in the region.
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Article Source: NewsEdge