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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

As US and militias engage, White House worries about a tipping point

President Joe Biden boards Marine One in Rehoboth Beach en route to New Castle, Del., on Sunday, Jan. 21, 2024. The latest attack on American troops over the weekend resulted in no deaths, but President Biden and his advisers worry it is only a matter of time. (Yuri Gripas/The New York Times)

By Peter Baker

Another day, another barrage of rockets and another spark that U.S. officials fear could set off a wildfire of violence across the Middle East.

The latest attack on U.S. troops in the region over the weekend resulted in no deaths, but President Joe Biden and his advisers worry that it is only a matter of time. Whenever a report of a strike arrives at the White House Situation Room, officials wonder whether this will be the one that forces a more decisive retaliation and results in a broader regional war.

The assault on U.S. troops based at Ain al-Asad Air Base in western Iraq on Saturday night was by one measure the most successful believed to be carried out by a militia sponsored by Iran since the Hamas terrorist attack on Israel on Oct. 7. Two of an estimated 17 rockets and short-range ballistic missiles fired at the base made it through air defense systems. An unspecified number of U.S. military personnel were reported injured, but none were said to have been killed.

But it was just the latest in a regular string of relatively low-level assaults that have become a way of life in the Middle East for U.S. forces since the Hamas attack. As of Thursday, Iranian-backed militias had carried out 140 attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria, with nearly 70 U.S. personnel wounded, some of them suffering traumatic brain injuries. All but a few have been able to return to duty in short order, according to the Pentagon.

U.S. forces have at times mounted retaliations, but in limited fashion to avoid instigating a full-fledged conflict.

Biden administration officials have regularly debated the proper strategy. They do not want to let such attacks go without a response, but on the other hand do not want to go so far that the conflict would escalate into a full-fledged war, particularly by striking Iran directly. They privately say they may have no choice, however, if U.S. troops are killed. That is a red line that has not been crossed, but if the Iranian-backed militias ever have a day of better aim or better luck, it easily could be.

“The administration confronts a problem without a risk-free solution,” said Aaron David Miller, a longtime Middle East peace negotiator now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “They don’t want to strike Iran directly for fear of escalation, which only widens the margin for pro-Iranian groups, including the Houthis, to strike at U.S. forces. At some point, if U.S. forces are killed, they’ll have no alternative but to respond directly against Iranian assets.”

While there have been no known U.S. fatalities from enemy fire since Oct. 7, two Navy SEALs went missing this month during a nighttime commando raid on a boat carrying Iranian-made ballistic-missile and cruise-missile components to the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen. On Sunday, U.S. Central Command said the SEALs had died and it had ended its search. One of the SEALs slipped off a boarding ladder or was swept off by a high wave, while the other jumped in to try to save him, according to news reports.

Biden’s critics of Biden have complained that he has been too passive, even after the United States launched six airstrikes in 10 days against Houthi forces. The Houthis have been attacking merchant and military vessels in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden in what they call retaliation for Israel’s military operations against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

The critics contend that Biden has emboldened Iran by not acting more firmly, not just since Oct. 7 but also through his whole administration. Biden has unsuccessfully tried to negotiate a new agreement with Iran that would restrain its nuclear weapons program, and he facilitated the release of frozen Iranian assets in exchange for the release of Americans held prisoner.

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., derided U.S. operations against the Houthis as “very limited pinprick strikes against a bunch of goat herders in Yemen” and asserted that Biden had not moved strongly enough to deter Iran. “Joe Biden’s weakness and indecision and half measures have failed totally to protect Americans,” he said on the Hugh Hewitt radio show last week.

The White House has rejected the argument that Biden has been too soft on Iran, pointing to sanctions that his administration has imposed on 500 individuals, companies or government entities. “There’s been a lot of effort here to hold Iran accountable for their destabilizing activities,” National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said Friday.

There are so many brush fires and so many players with matches in the region that it is not hard to imagine the conflict deteriorating into something even deadlier. Israel continues to hammer Hamas in Gaza while exchanging fire across the Lebanese border with Hezbollah, taking on two groups backed by Iran, even as U.S. troops fight with Houthis in Yemen and militias in Iraq and Syria. Iran blamed Israel for an airstrike on Damascus, Syria, on Saturday that killed five Iranian military figures. Iran for its part has fired missiles into Iraq, Syria and Pakistan, prompting Pakistan to mount its own airstrike against Iran.

Biden’s team is trying to manage all those flashpoints at the same time it is trying to find a way to press Israel to scale back its war against Hamas to a more surgical operation with fewer civilian casualties. So far, according to Gaza health officials, more than 25,000 people have been killed, some of them Hamas combatants but most of them women and children.

A senior Biden administration official was leaving for the region Sunday to seek a new agreement between Israel and Hamas to release some or all of the 120 hostages still believed to be held in exchange for at least a pause in the fighting, according to two U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities.

The official, Brett McGurk, the president’s Middle East coordinator, planned to travel to Cairo to meet with Abbas Kamel, chief of Egypt’s General Intelligence Service and widely considered the nation’s second-most-powerful official. As part of the trip, previously reported by Axios, McGurk will also head to Doha, Qatar, to meet with Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani.

At the same time, administration officials said they were worried the conflict in the region might be getting worse, not better.

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