The airstrikes were a show of force, but appeared to do little damage to direct Iranian assets in the region, instead largely targeting Iran’s proxy forces.
“It looks like a very significant action by the Biden administration, but on the other hand I don’t think it’s going to be anywhere near sufficient to deter these groups,” said Charles Lister, director of the Middle East Institute’s Syria program. “These militias have been engaged in this campaign for more than 20 years, they are in a long-term struggle. They are ultimately engaged in an attritional campaign against the U.S.”
The overnight strikes on 85 targets, carried out using B-1 bombers flown from the United States, were part of what U.S. officials say would be a multiday campaign at regional targets linked to Iran. President Biden has said that further military action in response to the U.S. troop deaths “will continue at times and places of our choosing”.
U.S. officials have described the operation as a carefully calibrated military response aimed at deterring further attacks on U.S. interests in the region while avoiding ramping up the cycle of regional conflict.
Syria and Iraq warned that the strikes could do that.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani described the strikes as another American “strategic mistake” alongside its support of Israel during its war on Hamas. They contribute to “tension and instability” in the region, he said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based monitoring network, said 18 militants were killed in strikes at 26 Iran-linked sites in Syria. The Washington Post could not independently verify the figures.
Iraq, a strategic ally of the United States, said it had summoned David Burger, the U.S. charge d’affairs in Baghdad, to hand him a letter of protest following the raids that killed at least 16 Iraqis and injured 25 in the Akashat and al-Qaim areas of the western province of Anbar.
An Iraqi government spokesman described the American airstrikes as “blatant aggression.”
“This aggressive strike places the security in Iraq and the region on the edge of the abyss, conflicting with efforts to establish the required stability,” spokesman Basim al-Awadi said. He said the government rejected the use of Iraqi soil as a “battleground for settling scores.”
While the Iraqi government said that the 16 deaths included an unspecified number of civilians, Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, which includes an array of militia factions including some linked to Iran, attributed the same number of casualties – 16 deaths and 25 injuries – to its fighters. It released a list of their names.
Separately, an Iraqi provincial official, who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the subject said at least two civilians were killed near the Anbar province town of al-Qaim on the Syrian border, where weapons depots were targeted, putting the potential number of deaths in the country at 18. Shiekh Hani Al-Awad, tribal leader from the area also confirmed the death of two civilians.
Iraqi officials did not respond to queries on the discrepancies.
The Popular Mobilization Forces formed of largely Shiite militias that rallied to fight Islamic State militants after they overran swathes of Iraq and Syria in 2014. The United States also sent troops to support ground and air operations against the group and still has a few thousand troops in Iraq and Syria with a stated mission of preventing the resurgence of the Islamic State.
But briefly united in a shared mission, Iranian proxies have turned efforts towards pushing out U.S. forces from the region.
The PMF has since been absorbed into the official Iraqi security forces and encompass the more hardline Iranian-linked factions that make up the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, the group of Iran-linked militant groups that claimed responsibility for Sunday’s lethal drone attack on U.S. forces in Jordan.
Both include Kataib Hezbollah, an Iran-backed faction that Washington has linked to the the drone attack that the three U.S. troops.
Kataib Hezbollah announced a halt in attacks on U.S. forces after the lethal drone strike in Jordan, but other militias in the Islamic Resistance have said they plan to continue. And if deterrence was the U.S. aim those proxies were determined to show it was not working.
The Islamic Resistance in Iraq said it launched two fresh attacks on American troop positions in response to the U.S. airstrikes. The group claimed to have carried out an attack on U.S. troops at Harir airbase in northern Iraq, and a second at Kharab al-Jeer base in north eastern Syria “in response to the Zionist entity’s massacre against our people in Gaza”.
A spokesperson for Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S. military coalition supporting Iraq’s fight against Islamic State militants, did not respond to requests for comment.
“The fact that they’ve been bold enough to pop their heads up above the parapit today and launch attacks at U.S. troops speaks volumes about their confidence,” he said of the claims of retaliation by the Islamic Resistance.
“Now the ball is in America’s court again. Is the second round more aggressive? Does the second round include an attempt to target a high value Iranian linked operative as another way of trying to send a deterrent message? Or is it just more of the same,” said Lister.
Proxy groups would be happy to return to “chipping away at American credibility and deployments”, he said.
Abdolrasool Divsallar, an Iran specialist and professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan said that the Biden administration had appeared to struck the balance between deterrence and deescalation but they had not come at significant military cost to Iran which has had nearly a week to prepare for America’s response.
“They’ve been evacuating their personal and assets,” he said. Iran knows further retaliation could cause an “escalation loop,” he said, and both the United States and Iran have signaled they want to avoid further conflict. He said he expected response from proxy groups on the ground to remain “low intensity”.
U.S. Central Command said more than 125 precision munitions were fired at assets belonging to “militia groups and their [Iranian military] sponsors who facilitated attacks against U.S. and Coalition forces” during the attack.
Iranian proxies in the Middle East have escalated attacks on the United States and Israel since the start of the war in Gaza. Israel has responded with a military campaign that has killed more than 27,000 Palestinians, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.
The deaths of Spec. Breonna A. Moffett, 23, Sgt. William J. Rivers, 46, and Spec. Kennedy L. Sanders, 24, members of an Army Reserve unit based in Fort Moore, Ga., were the first in what the Institute for the Study of War says has been more than 170 attacks on U.S. military bases in the region, mainly in Syria and Iraq, since Oct. 7. More than 50 troops were wounded, at least one critically, in the strike on Tower 22, a key support base for the larger U.S. installation at Tanf in Syria.
The United States has launched dozens of retaliatory strikes since Oct. 7, including one in Baghdad that killed a senior commander of al-Nujaba.
Salim reported from Baghdad; El Chamaa reported from Beirut. Susannah George in Dubai and Missy Ryan, Dan Lamothe, Alex Horton in Washington contributed to t