US defence and military officials have been deliberating over a response to Iran-backed attacks across the Middle East as they await approval from the Biden administration, according to officials and sources familiar with the matter.
US forces in Iraq and Syria have been targeted over 100 times since 17 October, which was just 10 days after the deadly Hamas attack on Israel.
The US military has publicly announced at least six different potential responses as they look to contain the conflict in Gaza and prevent a new war that would require deploying US boots on the ground again.
After several weeks of attacks, US President Joe Biden had initially only authorised responses inside Syria, which analysts and former officials have described as largely symbolic strikes despite some of the attacks on US troops occurring in Iraq.
The US had avoided responding inside Iraq due to already frustrated public sentiment amongst Iraqis towards Washington. However, the US has since targeted Iran-backed militias inside Iraq and killed several fighters, officials said.
Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke to the Iraqi Prime Minister regarding Baghdad’s obligation to protect US diplomatic and military personnel in the country. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also held similar discussions with the Iraqi Premier to reinforce this message.
Austin stated the US had the right to act in self-defence against those attacking US forces and called out Iran-backed Kataeb Hezbollah and Harakat al-Nujaba for being behind most attacks.
According to one US official, who spoke anonymously to discuss sensitive information, the United States was giving the Iraqi government an opportunity to curb these militias.
Baghdad’s security forces have arrested a handful of perpetrators. However, the official said it seems unlikely the Iraqi government will be able to fully stop attacks on Americans in the country at the invitation of the Iraqi government.
In recent days, the top US military general for the Middle East held discussions with the top US military general and Pentagon chief to discuss potential responses.
US Central Command (CENTCOM) chief Gen. Erik Kurilla now has a list of different retaliatory attacks prepared, ready for approval once the US President authorises a response.
“Deterrence has not worked so far,” said one US official.
Gen. Kurilla travelled to Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Israel last week. He also visited the USS CARNEY in the Red Sea, which has shot down ballistic missiles and drones launched by the Houthis multiple times over the last few weeks.
Calculating an appropriate response
The Biden administration has publicly stated its intention not to launch any attacks that would escalate fighting in the Middle East.
Thousands of US troops are based in the region and any retaliation to US strikes could put them in danger immediately.
Nevertheless, the US military is prepared to strike back at the attacks as well as the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen for shooting down an American MQ-9 Reaper drone and for hijacking and attacking commercial vessels in the Red Sea.
An official said any potential response would have more impact and send a stronger message to Iran than previous strikes, which the US has accused of being behind the uptick in attacks across the region. However, calculating the scale and type of attacks remains ongoing.
Carrying out strikes against the Houthis in Yemen and militias in Iraq and Syria would be almost tantamount to declaring war, one official said, pointing to the various factors under consideration.
That is something the US aims to avoid as part of its policy objectives on Gaza. According to officials, policy decisions are being made based on five pillars: protect, deter, contain, assure, and project force.
So far, the US has been able to protect its troops in the region for the most part as well as contain the fighting to Gaza. Officials say the US has also reassured Israel of its commitment to helping defend itself and respond to Hamas.
Washington has also demonstrated it is capable of surging assets to the Middle East while not neglecting the threat from China to the Indo-Pacific or its ability to provide assistance to Ukraine as it continues to defend itself from Russian invasion.
The fifth pillar that has not been achieved is deterrence, according to current and former US military officials.
“There’s a fine line between avoiding escalation and inviting continued opportunities for Iranian and Houthi attacks, based on a perceived fecklessness on our part,” said former US Central Command head Gen. Frank McKenzie in a recent interview with POLITICO.