February 5, 2024
IntelBrief: U.S. Strikes Aimed at Restoring Deterrence without Escalating Conflict with Iran
The United States’ opening salvo in response to the attack in Jordan that killed three U.S. troops last week included attacks against targets in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. B-1B Lancer Bombers took off from the United States and struck 85 targets across seven different sites, four in eastern Syria and three in western Iraq, using 125 precision munitions. The initial strikes targeted logistical supply lines and infrastructure used by Iran-backed militias that operate in Iraq and Syria. U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) announced that among the 85 targets across Iraq and Syria, U.S. strikes hit command and control operations centers, intelligence centers,” and supply chain facilities for rockets, missiles, drones, and munitions. In Syria, targets were hit in Deir Ezzor, al-Mayadin, and Abu Kamal. In Iraq, strikes were concentrated around Al-Qaim, where weapons warehouses were targeted, and Akashat, where U.S. forces hit a command headquarters used by Iraqi Shia militia groups. The use of B-1B Bombers instead of F-15s suggested a larger scope and range than previous U.S. attacks. By destroying infrastructure used by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force (IRGC-QF), Washington hopes it can temporarily set back the capabilities of Iran-backed groups to launch strikes against U.S. troops in the Middle East.
The U.S. response is expected to be multi-tiered and unfold over weeks, targeting an array of groups that form part of Iran’s so-called “axis of resistance,” including militias in Iraq and Syria that operate under the umbrella of the Islamic Resistance in Iraq. In the recent round of fighting in response to the attack in Jordan, no Iranian forces have been reported killed, a signal that the Biden administration is attempting to be judicious in its targeting. The Houthis in Yemen are also a top target in the U.S.-led campaign, and over the weekend, a combined assault by the U.S. and the UK hit thirty-six separate targets across thirteen locations in Yemen, where according to the Wall Street Journal, strikes hit “weapons storage facilities, missile systems and launchers, and air-defense systems and radars.” A follow-on strike hit an anti-ship cruise missile that the Houthis were preparing to launch at vessels and merchant shipping transiting the Red Sea. The missile was also deemed a threat to the U.S. Navy. The assaults are designed to degrade the Houthis’ capability to strike commercial shipping targets. On Sunday, Mohammed Al-Bukhaiti, a member of the Houthi’s political bureau, said that the U.S. and UK attacks “will not go unanswered, and we will meet escalation with escalation.” U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III released a statement which read in part: “The collective action sends a clear message to the Houthis that they will continue to bear further consequences if they do not end their illegal attacks on international shipping and naval vessels.” Since the Hamas attacks on Israel on October 7th galvanized Iranian proxies in the region, Washington and London have struggled with how to deter Iranian proxies, chief among them the Houthis.
Iran attempted to distance itself from the attack in Jordan and in the week that followed the attack, much of the discussion in U.S. national security circles centered on whether members of the axis of resistance are proxies or puppets. While Iran trains, equips, and funds these groups, it does not micromanage the details of each and every attack. Tehran then highlights that these groups are autonomous and as such, the Iranian regime cannot be held responsible for their actions, introducing a layer of ambiguity intended to obfuscate Iran’s regional strategy. Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Houthis in Yemen, Lebanese Hezbollah and various Iran-backed militia groups in Iraq, including Kataib Hezbollah and Harakat al-Nujaba, are the realization of Qassem Soleimani’s “unity of fronts” strategy, designed to extend Iran’s influence and reach throughout the region. Still, even if Iran does not direct its proxies at the tactical level, given Tehran’s role in supporting these groups, it still wields significant influence. Shortly after the attack on U.S. troops in Jordan, IRGC-QF commander Gen. Esmail Qaani traveled to Baghdad to meet with the leadership of the Islamic Resistance of Iraq, resulting in a statement from Kataib Hezbollah that it would temporarily suspend attacks against U.S. troops.
Until a formal battle damage assessment (BDA) is conducted, it remains unclear how effective the U.S. strikes will be or how significantly they will impact the force posture of Iran-backed groups operating in the region. But even while the U.S. strikes have eschewed targeting Iranian personnel directly, the U.S. intends to message to Iran the severity of its intentions by going after targets that are still important to Tehran, including the bases, supply lines, and weapons depots maintained by IRGC-QF commanders in Iraq and Syria. The Biden administration is facing a difficult challenge, attempting to craft a forceful response that seeks to at once deter Iranian-backed militias from conducting future attacks on U.S. troops, while also avoiding further escalating and therefore risking a broader regional conflagration. It is impossible to disaggregate what is happening with Iran’s proxy forces from the conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, something Tehran and its allies have repeatedly signaled since the conflict kicked off in early October. The attacks emanating from Yemen, Iraq, and elsewhere in the region are inextricably linked to Gaza, where fighting continues even as talks for a second hostage deal continue, with Egypt, Qatar, Israel, and the United States attempting to forge the details of a deal that would be accompanied by a ceasefire.