Will Biden’s ‘Goldilocks’ airstrikes on Iran-backed militias work?


Will Biden’s ‘Goldilocks’ airstrikes on Iran-backed militias work?

Doyle McManus

February 5, 2024

The recent US airstrikes on Iranian-backed militias were the largest ordered by President Biden since taking office, a decidedly large-scale retaliation for a drone strike that killed three US soldiers in Jordan.

But they were also designed as what some officials derisively call a Goldilocks option, big enough to wreak havoc but not so big that Iran would feel compelled to respond.

Friday’s attacks in Iraq and Syria caused significant damage to missile sites and other installations used by Iran’s allies in those countries. On Saturday, the United States and Britain struck Iran-supplied Houthi rebels in Yemen, who are attacking international shipping in the Red Sea.

But if the goal was to deter Iran and its allies once and for all, it is unlikely to succeed.

The aim of the offensive was more than mere retaliation. The intention was to destroy as many of the Iranian proxy forces’ weapons as possible and deter the groups from future attacks, all without sparking a major war with their sponsors in Tehran.

The goal here is to make these attacks stop, said John Kirby, spokesman for the National Security Council. We are not looking for a war with Iran.

In this sense, the operations appeared to be successful, at least in the short term.

Iran condemned the attacks but did not threaten retaliation. Instead, it warned the United States against attacking two Iranian ships in the Red Sea suspected of being used by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards. Even before the airstrikes, Iraq’s largest Iranian-backed militant group announced it would suspend attacks on U.S. targets. (That did not save the group, the Kataib Hezbollah, from the blow.)

But in the long term, Iran and its allies will almost certainly regroup and look for new opportunities to attack U.S. military installations and other U.S. interests in the region.

The powerful forces of the Revolutionary Guard are too committed to the goal of driving the United States out of the Middle East to stand aside for long. The Guard’s Quds Force has spent decades training and equipping pro-Iranian militias in nearby countries.

Moreover, the militias in western Iraq and eastern Syria targeted by the airstrikes have their own reasons to keep fighting: expelling the United States from the area is also their political brand.

They are not robots completely controlled by Iran, says Vali Nasr of Johns Hopkins University. They have become the representation of anti-Americanism in Iraq. Every strike and counterattack reinforces that [status].

And the continued presence of more than 6,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, Syria and Jordan, a deployment that many Americans likely forgot about until the Jan. 28 drone strike that killed three people at a desert base, still offers a tantalizing list of targets.

The troops are there as a result of the US-led war against Islamic State, the bloodthirsty terrorist group that took 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 about 10,000 of its fighters are stranded in Kurdish-run prisons in northeastern Syria, because no country wants to take them in.

Officially, the American deployment in the desert is to help Iraqi and Kurdish forces prevent the Islamic State from returning. But in recent years, U.S. units have taken on an additional, unofficial mission: keeping tabs on the Revolutionary Guards and its increasingly capable proxy forces. The small American detachments are not authorized or equipped to wage war against the Guard or anyone else.

The Iranian-backed militias have attacked US units more than 150 times with missiles and drones since October, most of which have missed their targets.

The militias were created precisely for this purpose, says Charles Lister, a Syria expert at the Middle East Institute in Washington. They were local and not. They can afford to pursue a long-duration strategy. We don’t really have a counterbalance to that.

This has created a dilemma for American policymakers. The U.S. military presence was never intended to be permanent, but withdrawing now could likely allow the Islamic State to revive.

Republican hawks argue the problem can be easily solved. Hit Iran and hit them hard, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). insisted last week. But Graham and his colleagues would not be responsible for the consequences of a major war between the US and Iran


follow the.

That’s why the Biden administration opted for what it hopes will prove to be the Goldilocks option. If the airstrikes do enough damage, the Iranian-backed militias will at least have fewer drones and missiles to launch at U.S. targets.

As usual, there are no good options, said a former senior official.

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 General Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards, while he was on a visit to Iraq.

At some point, one of those Iranian-backed groups will likely strike again, whether to serve the Islamic Republic


interest or his own interest.

The cycle of attack and retaliation will begin again. That’s how the Middle East works.


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