On Sunday, President Joe Biden announced that three American troops were killed and 34 others injured after a drone strike hit a U.S. military service base in northeast Jordan near the Syrian border. The Islamic Resistance in Iraq claimed responsibility for the attack. The group emerged in October 2023 on Telegram, and is made up of a loose collection of Iranian-allied militia groups who oppose U.S. support for Israel’s war on Gaza.
Since the Israel-Hamas war began on Oct. 7, there have been over 150 attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria by Iranian aligned militia groups, according to Reuters. This is in addition to over 30 attacks on civilian cargo ships conducted by Iran-allied Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Biden promised in a statement that “we will hold all those responsible to account at a time and in a manner our choosing.”
Julie Norman, a professor of politics and international relations at University College London, says that Sunday’s attack is especially significant to the Biden Administration because U.S. troops were killed, and that this may put more pressure on the President to act with force.
“Most of the drones are intercepted before they hit anything, and when they have hit, there have been some injuries but never this kind of casualty level,” Norman says. “That is a red line and I think the Biden Administration is holding their breath and saying we have to confront this.”
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Republican pressure on Biden
Republicans in Congress have long criticized the Biden Administration for being too soft on Iran, which denies any involvement in Sunday’s attack. Biden initially entered office with the goal of reviving the Iranian nuclear deal agreed to under the Obama Administration and easing Washington-Tehran tensions. The Trump Administration withdrew from the deal in 2018. Negotiations have languished under Biden and many Republicans have called on the President to be more aggressive in his foreign policy in the wake of Oct. 7.
“He left our troops as sitting ducks,” Republican U.S. Senator Tom Cotton told Reuters after the attack. “The only answer to these attacks must be devastating military retaliation against Iran’s terrorist forces, both in Iran and across the Middle East.”
But according to Norman, despite the pressure from Republicans, the President is unlikely to risk anything that could provoke a regional war with Tehran.
“It’s important to note this attack happened while there are other negotiations going on for hostage releases in Israel-Gaza and negotiations going on between Israel and Hezbollah on the northern border of Israel,” Norman says. “To launch an attack on Iran right now, in any kind of devastating way, is not what they would want because they have real interest in seeing these other deals come to fruition.”
During a campaign event in West Columbia, South Carolina on Sunday, Biden said the U.S. “lost three brave souls in an attack on one of our bases.” After a moment of silence for the fallen soldiers, Biden said, “And we shall respond.”
Small, targeted retaliatory strikes in Syria likely
What is more likely, experts say, is that the Biden Administration retaliates with smaller strikes aimed at the militant groups responsible for Sunday’s attack.
“In the past when there have been these attacks on U.S. troops by Iranian backed militias, there have been retaliatory, very carefully calibrated strikes on those militia groups on their weapons depots,” Norman says.
Sanam Vakil, the director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, agrees with that conclusion. “There’s certainly an intention to respond. The President has been very explicit,” Vakil says.
“But there’s also a degree of pressure coming from both sides of the aisle because of the election year that we’re facing. So I would imagine that the President is going to produce a sort of mixed response—one that aims at setting back these groups and their presence in Syria and Iraq, but at the same time, also finding a way to directly kick back against Iran without attacking Iran directly.”
Iran’s long-term goals
In the long run, experts say that Tehran’s position remains focused on decreasing U.S. influence in the region, weakening Israel, and showing that its allied militias like Hezbollah and the Houthis are operational and effective when it comes to combating American interests. The Israel-Hamas war has been an opportunity to further these goals.
Nevertheless, Vakil says that Iran is very keen to publicly distance itself from these attacks. “Iran very clearly and repeatedly, and interestingly, keeps messaging that it’s not directing the command and control centers of these groups,” Vakil adds.
In a statement to the Islamic Republic News Agency on Monday, Nasser Kanaani, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, said that Iran was “not involved in the decision making of resistance groups,” and was not involved in the attack on the U.S. troops in any way.