On February 26, the United States carried out an airstrike in eastern Syria targeting facilities used by Iran-backed militias in retaliation for recent rocket attacks on U.S. military sites in Iraq. In the first military action taken by President Joe Biden, two U.S. Air Force F-15E aircraft fired seven missiles into a border-crossing station, destroying buildings used by Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shudada, prominent Iran-backed Shiite militia groups in the region. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby defended the decision to strike these Syrian targets as “authorized in response to recent attacks against American and collation personnel in Iraq.”
These Iranian-backed militias in Iraq are Iranian proxies and have consistently targeted U.S. personnel, and military and diplomatic sites in Baghdad’s Green Zone in recent years. Following the targeted killing of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commander General Qasem Soleimani in January 2020, Tehran’s proxies escalated their attacks significantly. In February alone, three attacks that can be attributed to Iranian proxies targeted the U.S. presence in Iraq. On February 16, rocket fire near Erbil killed one U.S. civilian contractor and wounded five others. One week later, three rockets landed near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, causing minor property damage.
Although Biden’s decision to attack Iranian-proxies in Syria was criticized by some Democratic and Republican lawmakers, the president was steadfast in his position that the airstrikes were consistent with the U.S right to self-defense. Biden later warned Iran to tread carefully, cautioning that the regime “can’t act with impunity.”
The Syria operation shows Biden is willing to use force to defend American lives. However, this operation appears to be an anomaly when considering what we know about Biden’s current Iran policy. Reentering the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran remains a top priority for Biden. Tehran knows this and has taken advantage of the leverage this issue has given it over the new U.S. administration.
Since the onset of Biden’s presidency, Iran has threatened to slash International Atomic Energy Agency inspections, produced dangerous levels of uranium-metal that could be used for bombs, and seized a South Korean tanker in an attempt to press Seoul to release billions of dollars in frozen assets. In addition to these provocations, Iran has directed its region-wide proxies to conduct attacks targeting American interests in Iraq, Yemen, and Syria.
Up until the February 26 Syria operation, the Biden administration has maintained a reconciliatory approach to Iran. Three days prior to the operation, South Korea’s foreign ministry confirmed it had reached a deal with the Biden team to free the billions of dollars in Iranian frozen assets. In Yemen, the Biden team removed the Houthi rebels from the U.S. Foreign Terrorist Organization list. Two days following this delisting, Biden officials were forced to warn the Houthis to halt its ongoing terror attacks against civilians.
Biden’s decision to strike Iranian assets in Syria was the right call. The retaliatory measure could alter the Iranian regime’s impression that Biden and his administration have a high tolerance when it comes to Tehran’s proxies and their attacks on U.S. personnel and interests. Going forward, Iran will likely continue to test Biden’s resolve with its militias region-wide. The Biden administration should minimize further concessions to Iran and work with Israel and its Gulf allies to coordinate and deter its regional ambitions.
Maya Carlin is an analyst at the Center for Security Policy in Washington D.C. and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel.