US: Anti-ISIS Fight Continues; Iran Behind Lethal Drone Attack

Two other enemy drones targeted nearby locations in southeast Syria, the Times reported, but they were both shot down.
US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby speaks during the daily briefing in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC, Jan. 29, 2024. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP)
US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby speaks during the daily briefing in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC, Jan. 29, 2024. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP)

WASHINGTON DC, United States (Kurdistan 24) –  John Kirby, National Security Council (NSC) Coordinator for Strategic Communications, is, in many respects, the most authoritative spokesperson in the Biden administration on national security matters.

Kirby addressed journalists in a press briefing on Monday–one day after a drone attack on a military base in northeast Jordan by an Iranian-backed militia. The attack killed three U.S. service members and wounded over 40 others. They were members of the 718th Engineer Company, an Army Reserve unit, based out of Fort Moore, Georgia. 

Almost always, the air defenses around bases hosting U.S. troops manage to shoot down such drones. But in this case, the attacking drone was mistaken for a U.S. air surveillance drone, returning to the base, as The New York Times reported.

Two other enemy drones targeted nearby locations in southeast Syria, the Times reported, but they were both shot down.

John Kirby: Defeat-ISIS Mission “Must and Will Continue”

Kirby began Monday’s briefing by offering the condolences of President Joe Biden and his wife to the families of those killed in Sunday’s attack. 

However, his next point was somewhat surprising. One might have expected him to discuss the U.S. response to the attack, but that is not what happened.

Rather, Kirby emphasized that the U.S. would continue its fight against ISIS. This served an important purpose–to counter misleading statements coming out of Baghdad concerning the significance of military talks between the U.S. and Iraq.

Thus, Kirby stated, “These troops [in northeast Jordan] were conducting a vital mission in the region, aimed at helping us work with partners to counter ISIS. And even as the Defense Department gathers more information about the attack, that mission must and will continue.” 

This is similar to what Treefa Aziz, Representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Washington, told Kurdistan 24 on Sunday. 

“I do not believe that the Americans will just get up and leave tomorrow,” Aziz said, explaining that any U.S. departure would be a “long process.”

Read More: US, Iraq talks on transition to security bilateral relations ‘not something new’, says KRG envoy

Indeed, the KRG has been clear about the importance of a sustained US military presence in the region. In early January, Prime Minister Masrour Barzani reiterated the need to maintain the work and operations of the US-led Coalition against ISIS in order to continue enabling and assisting Iraqi forces, as well as Peshmerga forces in the Kurdistan Region.

State-Sponsored Terrorism 

Before January 1993, when Bill Clinton became president, we assumed that major terrorist attacks, generally speaking, were state-sponsored. Indeed, we saw terrorism, largely, as a form of proxy war, and after any major attack, our focus was on determining which state was behind it, and then punishing that state.

Thus, for example, in the investigation that followed the Dec. 21, 1988, bombing of the U.S. airliner, Pan Am 103, it was determined that Libyan intelligence had been responsible. Very strict sanctions were then imposed on Libya.

This approach to dealing with terrorism proved so effective that for the next three years, there were no major terrorist attacks against U,S. targets—not until the Feb. 26, 1993, bombing of New York’s World Trade Center.

That occurred in the early days of Bill Clinton’s presidency, and Clinton shifted how we dealt with terrorism. We now longer treated it as a national security issue, with the focus on determining state sponsorship, but saw it as a law enforcement issue, and we focused on the arrest, trial and conviction of individual perpetrators.

At the same time, Israel developed its own version of this concept. It claimed a new kind of terrorism had emerged that did not involve states. This terrorism was, according to Israeli analysts, a question of ideology, and they called this violence “the global jihad.”

But why should aggressive states have stopped using terrorist proxies? It was a dubious concept. But it was sustained throughout the Clinton presidency, by both Americans and Israelis–and it resulted in the 9/11 attacks.

President George W. Bush might have corrected this mistake and restored our understanding of the role of states in terrorism. But he had little experience of national security affairs, and his closest advisor, Condoleezza Rice, was a weak figure.

Rather than detail the mistakes that U.S. officials had made in dealing with Iraq, going back to his father’s conduct of the1991 Gulf War, Bush embraced the neocon claim that the U.S. could transform the Middle East through democracy—i.e. by overthrowing regimes. 

Doubtless, this appears as a crazy idea now. But it was embraced and promoted then. Indeed, as a senior figure in Vice President Dick Cheney’s office confessed to this reporter in 2008, “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 through democracy.

This helps explain why, after the 9/11 attacks, Bush did not make a more serious effort to correct the mistake that U.S. and Israeli officials had made in the 1990s regarding the nature of terrorism and the central role that states generally play in such violence.

We “Hold Iran Responsible”

In Monday’s Defense Department briefing, Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh said several times, “We hold Iran responsible” for the attacks carried out by the groups it supports.

But just how will the Biden administration respond to Sunday’s attack? As Amb. John Bolton, National Security Council Advisor to President Donald Trump, and U.N. ambassador under George W. Bush, advised Kurdistan 24 earlier this month, “You don’t get deterrence until the aggressor understands that the pain that they’re going to feel outweighs whatever benefit they think they’re going to get from taking action.”

Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and then to the United Nations under President George W. Bush, expressed a similar perspective on Sunday.

“Our rules for effective deterrence going forward must include demonstrating that we have the resolve and the ability to escalate to levels beyond what Tehran has defined and can handle,” Khalilzad tweeted.

“Will the Biden Administration take the necessary steps?,” he continued. “If not, it will be open season on our brave American troops.”

The attitude of the Biden administration seems to fall short of the steely resolve and intense focus that Bolton and Khalilzad suggest is needed, Indeed, Iran appears to be more of a distraction than anything else.

On Monday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told journalists, “We will respond decisively to any aggression, and we will hold responsible the people who attacked our troops. We will do so at a time and a place of our choosing.”

But “at the same time,” Blinken continued, “We remain focused on our core objectives in the region, both in terms of the conflict in Gaza and broader efforts to build truly durable peace and security.”

Thus, the two “core objectives” for the Biden administration in the Middle East are ending the conflict in Gaza and promoting agreements between Israel and the Arabs. Before Hamas’s bloody Oct. 7 assault on Israel, it had been focused on extending the Abraham accords to include Saudi Arabia, and that still seems to be a key aim, while by such diplomacy, in its calculations, Iran will be isolated, and neutralized.

But all of that remains to be seen.