The United States carried out an airstrike in eastern Syria on Thursday.
“At President Biden’s direction, U.S. military forces earlier this evening conducted airstrikes against infrastructure utilized by Iranian-backed militant groups in eastern Syria,” said John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman. “These strikes were authorized in response to recent attacks against American and Coalition personnel in Iraq, and to ongoing threats to those personnel.”
“The operation sends an unambiguous message,” Kirby concluded, “President Biden will act to protect American and coalition personnel.” But he made a caveat, “We have acted in a deliberate manner that aims to de-escalate the overall situation in both eastern Syria and Iraq.”
Earlier this month, one U.S. contractor was killed, one U.S. soldier was injured, and eight contractors were injured in a rocket attack in Erbil, Iraq. The attacks were seen as a part of the broader regional proxy conflict between Washington and Tehran.
Thursday’s strikes come a month into Biden’s time in office. Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, castigated America’s addiction to “endless wars” and initiated half-formed plans to exit Syria, Afghanistan, and other theaters.
But, alternatively, on one front, Trump was near-uncompromising: Iran.
The 45th president nullified Barack Obama’s nuclear detente with Iran. And Trump’s hawkishness culminated with the assassination of infamous Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, a man Trump administration officials regarded as a terrorist, classifying his Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization. Before the onset of the pandemic crisis, 2020 looked set to be potentially dominated by a hot war with Iran ahead of the U.S. election.
Under Biden, those seeking a more moderate road have seen their hopes for some restoration dashed in the early going.
“Biden is, in effect, continuing Trump’s failed ‘maximum pressure’ campaign,” Joe Cirincione wrote in Responsible Statecraft in recent weeks. Now at the related Quincy Institute, Cirincione previously helmed the Ploughshares Fund, a pivotal booster of the JCPOA.
Old line hawks expressed tacit relief Thursday night.
“Credit to the Biden administration for responding,” said Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. FDD is officially non-partisan but was dominant in the Trump era in Washington, and was the most effective, trenchant opponent of the policy of the Obama administration, under which Biden of course served. “I’m happy to see a kinetic response from the Biden admin,” said Mathew Brodsky of the Gold Institute, a backer of various Trump administration measures on Iran. “Look forward to more details.”
The strike in Syria comes as Syrian President Bashar Assad, an ally of Iran, is back in the news in the United States. 60 Minutes aired an uncompromising recent report about chemical weapons use in the country, one that did not get into nuance of who Assad has been combatting (often, Al Qaeda and the Islamic State), or the murky nature of previous chemical weapons allegations levied against the regime. Syria’s pandemic-era economic woes were also highlighted in recent days in a report in the New York Times.
For its part, the Biden administration, dominated by pragmatic, but hawkish, realists such as Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, appears intent on standing pat in the region. It is a course Trump, for all his maneuvers against Iran (and Assad), continually floated abandoning altogether.
“While it probably makes sense to retaliate against rocket strikes,” Benjamin Friedman of Defense Priorities said Thursday. “This tit-for-tat underlines the pointless danger we’re running by keeping U.S. troops in Iraq. They can do little now but take fire and risk wider war.”