American forces launched a surgical air strike in Syria near its border with Iraq at Al Bukamal, killing 22 members of Iran-backed militias. The airstrike comes as a response to the targeting of a U.S.-led coalition air base in Erbil, which Iranian militias bombarded with two dozen missiles, killing no one.* While the American air strike was deliberate and intentional, it did not seek to escalate matters. Rather, the strike was meant to send a message of deterrence to Iran, that the United States will not lay down and accept attempts on the lives of its soldiers. The Iranian militia offensive and the American response come at a time when the rules of conflict are being redrawn. The new administration has not yet demonstrated how far it will go to achieve deterrence in the region. Iran wants to expand the conflict in order to avenge the killing of Qassem Soleimani. This is part of a broader attempt to drive the United States from the region, which would leave a power vacuum that Iran is ready to fill. On the other hand, the United States seeks only the keep a lid on the conflict. It has purposefully capitalized on targeted operations outside of Iraq’s borders so that the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi does not seek revenge and threaten its stability.
All this interplay is tactical and operational, not strategic. The Joe Biden administration seems to have accepted the reality of Iran’s strategic influence in Iraq and in the greater region. Instead of facing it head on, the administration is merely creating rules of engaging with it safely. This has led to America striking Iranian militias operating outside of Iraq, although many are found within Iraq. It creates a back-and-forth deterrence of Iranian footholds in the region, even though the head of the snake lies in Tehran and its footholds are mere pawns.
The American administration is avoiding coming to terms with the fact that this method will not undermine or stop Iran’s expansion in the region, and is opting for limited military strikes even though Iranian expansion is in full swing. But beyond that, Iran did not convert Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen or Syria into pseudo-satellite states with military strength from square one; it began with doctrinal Shiite appeals and pleas for funding, and then brought in military support. Thus, tactical and narrow military deterrence with Iran is doomed to fail. It is an ineffective tool in countering the Iranian threat in the region.
The United States’ latest military strike spoke volumes to Iran. The U.S. administration showed its new rules of engagement, giving Iran a green light to expand and branch out as long as it doesn’t threaten Americans in the region. One slip, and Iran will fall, one capital after another. Sadly, the predicament reflects a defective, geostrategic understanding of the map in the Middle East. Tehran must be confronted directly, instead of automatically resorting to military deterrence, or it will continue to jeopardize security and stability in the Middle East. It will not be long before Iran grasps firm control of Syria, and we will soon see Syrian Hezbollah, and Tehran will then single out other capitals in the region as they have threatened before.
*Editor’s note: A Feb. 15 rocket attack on coalition forces near the Erbil International Airport in Iraqi Kurdistan killed a civilian contractor and injured nine others, including four American contractors a a member of the U.S. military.