U.S.: “Iranian Fingerprints“ on Middle East Attacks

“We’re deeply concerned about the potential for any significant escalation of these attacks in the days ahead,” Kirby said.
A U.S. soldier stands near a child during a patrol near the Syrian-Turkish border in the countryside east of Qamishlo, Hasakah province, northeastern Syria, Aug. 21, 2022. (Photo: AFP)
A U.S. soldier stands near a child during a patrol near the Syrian-Turkish border in the countryside east of Qamishlo, Hasakah province, northeastern Syria, Aug. 21, 2022. (Photo: AFP)

WASHINGTON DC, United States (Kurdistan 24) – The Biden administration moved closer on Monday to linking Iran to the increase in terrorist attacks by pro-Iranian forces in the Middle East. 

Briefing reporters on Monday, senior Defense Department officials first noted that over “the last several days,” there had been “efforts by Iran and Iran proxy forces” to escalate the regional conflict.

Pressed to expand on that point, one, identified as a Senior Defense Official, explained, “It’s been well-documented and you’ve heard U.S. officials across the podiums as well as policy leaders for years talk about Iran’s funding, equipping, guidance, and direction to partners and proxies in the region.”

“That includes Lebanese Hizbollah, militia groups in Iraq and Syria, as well as the Houthis in Yemen,” the official continued. “So I think it’s fair to say when you see this uptick in activity and attacks by many of these groups, there’s Iranian fingerprints all over it.” 

John Kirby, National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications, spoke similarly to the White House press corps.

“Over the last couple of days,” Kirby said, there has been “an uptick in rocket and drone attacks by Iranian-backed proxy groups against military bases housing U.S. personnel in Iraq and Syria.” 

“We’re deeply concerned about the potential for any significant escalation of these attacks in the days ahead,” he continued. 

But the Biden administration stops short of really holding Iran responsible for the attacks and, most significantly, threatening a severe response, if they continue. 

Thus, one might conclude (and the Iranians probably have) that there is minimal consequence for continued attacks by its proxy forces on U.S. troops in the region. However, if Iran were to become directly involved, Washington’s response would be different. As administration officials have repeatedly signaled, that would precipitate a strong response. 

Earlier U.S. Views of State-Sponsored Terrorism

In the 1980s, during the Reagan years, there was a big debate about the nature of terrorism. The consensual view that emerged was that major acts of terrorism were generally state-sponsored. 

Such attacks were, mostly, a form of proxy war, in which a weaker state could hope to attack the U.S. and get away with it, because there was plausible deniability.

The focus of U.S. inquiries after any attack was state-sponsorship: what hostile state was responsible? Speculation would focus on that question, and if sufficient evidence was found linking a terrorist state to the attack, the U.S. would respond—targeting the state with a very significant measure—perhaps, a military attack, or, perhaps, truly harsh sanctions. 

And the attacks stopped! Following the Dec. 21, 1988, bombing of the airliner, Pan Am 103, for which the U.S. held Libya responsible, there were no more major terrorist attacks on U.S. targets for the next four years.

When such attacks began again, Bill Clinton was president, and he had a very different approach to dealing with terrorism. Clinton became president in January 1993. A month later, New York’s World Trade Center was bombed with the intent of toppling one tower onto the other and bringing them both down—a feat achieved eight years later.

Rather than treat terrorism as a national security issue, focused on state sponsorship, Clinton turned it into a law enforcement issue, focused on the arrest, trial, and conviction of individual perpetrators. 

The result was predictable. Because the party most responsible was never held accountable, the attacks continued. Terrorism became a chronic problem, and one might well argue that Clinton’s ineffectual approach led directly to the 9/11 attacks.

Read More: Revisiting Ramzi Yousef’s terrorism: World Trade Center bombing and Philippines plane bombing plot

George W. Bush might have straightened out the issue after the 9/11 attacks and restored the previous U.S. understanding of terrorism. However, he was persuaded by the “neocons” that he could do much more than simply respond to the 9/11 attacks. He could “transform” the Middle East through “democracy,” they said.

As a senior White House advisor, a long-time friend, confessed to this reporter in 2008, at the end of the Bush administration, “I didn’t pay attention to what you said”—all the details and cautions—“because I thought we were going to do it all”—i.e. transform the Middle East, as, it was thought, Ronald Reagan had transformed the Soviet bloc through the collapse of communism.

Series of Attacks on U.S. Forces in Context of Gaza War

Hamas’s savage Oct. 7 attack on Israel, predictably enough, triggered an intense Israeli military response, focused on bombing Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip. Hamas has continued to attack Israel sporadically, while cross-border attacks between Israel and Hizbollah have increased, along the Israeli-Lebanese border.

But there have also been an increase in attacks on U.S. forces by pro-Iranian militias in the region. The current series of strikes began on Oct. 17, ten days after Hamas’s bloody assault, and they have continued since. 

Their impact, so far, has been limited. They have caused only minor injuries, except for one instance in which, amid the tensions, a U.S. contractor suffered a fatal heart attack.

Read More: Third Day of Drone, Rocket Attacks by Pro-Iranian Militias

Most recently, on Monday, U.S. forces intercepted two attack drones targeting al-Tanf military base in southern Syria. Al-Tanf sits astride the major highway between Baghdad and Damascus, and the U.S. presence there inhibits the movement of pro-Iranian and pro-Syrian fighters, along with their weapons, from Iraq into the Syrian-Lebanese theater. 

Read More: US military destroys two drones near US forces in southern Syria

The so-called “Islamic Resistance in Iraq” claimed credit for the al-Tanf attack on Monday, as well as what it claimed were two drone attacks at U.S. military bases in northeastern Syria.

CENTCOM has said nothing about those attacks, but North Press Agency, which reports out of northeast Syria, described one of them. As it reported, citing a military source, “unidentified drones", ‘likely Iranian’ targeted the al-Omar oil field.

U.S. Military Build-Up amid Concerns About Escalation

Washington’s response to the attacks targeting U.S. forces has been to increase its military presence in the region. In addition, as U.S. officials made clear on Monday, they expect there will likely be an escalation in attacks, linked to events in the Gaza war, particularly if Israel proceeds with its plans for a ground assault into the Palestinian territory. 

Thus, a senior military official, briefing reporters at the Pentagon on Monday, stated, “We know there is a significant threat of escalation throughout the region and that would include towards U.S. forces.”

Indeed, the day before, on Sunday, the State Department announced it was withdrawing non-essential personnel from its consulate in Erbil and its embassy in Baghdad.

Read More: US orders evacuation of family and non-essential US personnel from Erbil and Baghdad

The State Department also advised Americans to avoid traveling to Iraq. 

The day before that, on Saturday, U.S, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin issued a statement detailing the U.S. force build-up. 

“Following detailed discussions with President Biden on recent escalations by Iran and its proxy forces across the Middle East region,” Austin began, “I directed a series of additional steps to further strengthen” our “regional deterrence efforts,” while increasing “force protection for U.S. forces in the region” and assisting “in the defense of Israel.”

Austin detailed the military movements he had ordered to achieve those goals: the deployment of a second aircraft carrier strike group, which will deploy to the Persian Gulf—in proximity to Iran. 

In addition, a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery is being sent to the region, along with “additional Patriot battalions to locations throughout the region to increase force protection for U.S. forces,” Austin said.

Both the THAAD and Patriot defend against ballistic missiles, but the THAAD is larger, with a longer range.

U.S. officials have made clear that they aim to avoid escalation of the conflict beyond the fight between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Above all, they want to prevent Iran from joining the fight.

As the Pentagon Press Secretary, Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told journalists on Monday, “Our primary goal” is to prevent “a widening of the conflict.” 

Thus, the administration may be prepared to adopt a largely defensive posture regarding attacks by Iran’s proxies on U.S. forces in order to avoid a conflict with Iran. There are risks, however, in such an approach—above all, U.S. defenses might fail in some regard, resulting in significant casualties, and the very conflict that the administration hopes to avoid.