The US is seeking to deter Iran and its proxies with retaliatory strikes.
But attacks continue against US troops across the region.
The US is attempting to strike back effectively without igniting a wider war.
The Iran-backed militias of its so-called "axis of resistance" are threatening more than three thousand American troops deployed to Iraq and Syria with increasingly dangerous attacks, putting the US administration in a bind: Strike back too hard and ignite a wider war or do too little and look weak in an election year.
"The big contradiction to the Biden administration's approach to the current crisis in the Middle East is that it is an election year in the United States," Nicholas Heras, senior director of strategy and innovation at the New Lines Institute, told Business Insider. "And the Biden administration is trying to simultaneously demonstrate to the American public that it is tough on Iran but that it is not dragging the US into another war in the Middle East."
Attacks against US forces continue despite US warnings and military retaliations in Iraq and Syria. In Syria, the US military targeted facilities used by these militias and Iran's hardline Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, IRGC, paramilitary. In Iraq, it upped the ante on Jan. 4 by assassinating a leader of the Iran-backed Harakat al-Nujaba group in Baghdad.
Still, according to one tally, as of Tuesday, the militias have targeted US forces 18 times in Syria and ten times in Iraq since Jan. 4, as part of Iran's response to Israel's war in Gaza begun after the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks by its ally, Hamas.
In their single largest attack to date, the militias launched ten rockets and seven short-range ballistic missiles at US troops stationed in Iraq's western Al-Asad airbase on Jan. 20. Even though at least 15 Patriot interceptor missiles were fired at the incoming projectiles, at least two hit the base. Four U.S. personnel suffered traumatic brain injuries from that attack.
The U.S. responded on Tuesday by targeting three militia "headquarters, storage, and training locations for rocket, missile, and one-way attack UAV capabilities" in Iraq, according to a U.S. Central Command statement.
Ryan Bohl, a senior Middle East and North Africa analyst at the risk intelligence company RANE, said the US "would rather strike Iraqi militia targets and leaders rather than the IRGC itself out of concern of escalation with the Iranians," referring to the Iranian paramilitaries who arm and train militants. "At least this is the case within Iraq."
"The U.S. has shown a willingness to strike sites associated with the IRGC in Syria," Bohl said. "But all of that would be designed to respond proportionally to these intermittent harassment of U.S. forces."
In Yemen, the Iran-allied Ansarallah movement, more commonly known as the Houthis, have carried out an estimated 30 attacks on commercial vessels in the Red Sea since mid-November.
The U.S. initially took a defensive posture, shooting down Israel-bound Houthi missiles and drones and establishing a multinational naval task force in December to keep shipping lanes open.
But as attacks on shipping continued, the U.S. and Britain targeted Houthi positions and weaponry inside Yemen with repeated airstrikes in January.
The latest strike, early Wednesday local time, destroyed two anti-ship missiles deemed an "imminent threat to merchant vessels and the U.S. Navy ships in the region," according to CENTCOM.
The preceding round of strikes, on Monday, were the eighth in a mere two-week period. According to The New York Times, they were "bigger and broader" than the previous seven, signaling Washington's intent to "wage a sustained and, at least for now, open-ended campaign" against the Yemen-based group.
With this new front open, Bohl doubts Washington is eager to "intentionally climb the escalation ladder." It's more likely to focus on "surgical degradation of militia capabilities" in response to provocations while avoiding "moving up that escalation ladder" by risking direct confrontation with Iran.
In an official statement after Tuesday's strikes, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin affirmed the U.S. does not want to "escalate conflict in the region" and called on these militias to cease their attacks.
"In 2024, it is highly likely American forces will be forced to engage in multiple military campaigns throughout the Middle East because of increasing pressure from Iran and Iran-aligned organizations," said Heras, the New Lines Institute analyst.
"Iran has carefully developed a strategy that applies pressure on the U.S. and Israel from multiple directions, as evidenced by the expansion of the Gaza conflict into Yemen and the ongoing Iranian-backed campaign against U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria," Heras said.
In Heras' view, President Joe Biden has shown he is "personally committed" to supporting Israel against Hamas while simultaneously seeking to "intimidate Iran and Iran-backed groups" to prevent them from undermining Israel's war effort by opening other regional fronts.
The U.S. presently has 2,500 troops in Iraq and 900 in Syria. Bohl doubts the U.S. will significantly alter present regional deployments in the near term unless there is a major escalation between Israel and Iran or Israel and Hezbollah.
"For now, the current force disposition seems capable of responding to attacks while denying Iran and its proxies a more target-rich environment should they deploy more forces there," Bohl said.
Heras doubts there will be any withdrawal of U.S. troops in the near future.
"Senior Biden administration officials are not likely to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq and Syria, even with escalating attacks from Iranian-backed groups, because to withdraw U.S. forces would be seen as an American capitulation to Iran at a time when Israel is at war," Heras said.
But keeping U.S. forces in place is also fraught with danger.
"There is a big risk for the Biden team that its muddle-through approach to the war in Gaza and the widening conflict in the Middle East will lead to a quagmire for the Americans in the region," Heras added.
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