Motives and Implications of US Strikes Against Iran-backed Militant Groups


The United States conducted airstrikes across Iraq and Syria in retaliation for a drone attack on January 28, 2024, in Jordan that killed three US soldiers and injured 40 others at Tower 22, a US base. President Joe Biden authorized the strikes following an assessment that linked Iran-backed militant groups to the drone attack. In an attempt to bolster deterrence, several strikes were carried out, targeting facilities utilized by the Iranian-affiliated Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), in Al-Qaim, Iraq, and other regions along the Syrian-Iraqi border. Iran criticized the strikes, labeling them as a “flagrant breach of Iraq and Syria’s territorial integrity, sovereignty, and political independence” and warned of increased instability.

US National Security Council Spokesperson John Kirby informed that the objective of the “multitiered” assaults was to halt the activities of Iran-backed militant groups rather than to provoke a conflict with Iran. As per recent reports, Abu Baqir al-Saadi, a senior commander of Kata’ib Hezbollah, along with two guards, were killed in a US drone strike in Baghdad’s Mashtal neighborhood. The Pentagon stated that the commander was responsible for orchestrating attacks on  US forces in the region.

In the current context, various factors are shaping the US response against Iran-backed militant groups.  Firstly, the  United States had to respond to the drone attack that targeted its soldiers in Jordan as it marked a significant military escalation. The Biden administration wants to project US military power and reinstate US deterrence and redlines in the region.  This use of force is complemented by US warnings and sanctions on Iran-linked entities. Moreover, the US military posture in the region in recent weeks has asserted its air power superiority by striking Iranian-backed militant groups across Iraq and Syria.  While some US lawmakers support the strikes as a necessary and proportionate response, others criticize the Biden administration’s delay in response.  

Secondly, the Biden administration is facing significant domestic pressure to take tougher measures against Iran. A bipartisan group of US lawmakers recently sent a letter to President Biden urging him to tighten the enforcement of sanctions on Iran and adopt a zero-tolerance policy in relation to  Iran’s oil exports, which they argue are sustaining Tehran’s regional belligerency and support for its militant groups.  Republican Senator Tom Cotton and other Republican lawmakers criticized the US response to Iran’s attacks, comparing it with harsher actions taken by previous Republican presidents.

Thirdly, for non-state actors such as  Iran-backed militant groups,  the objective is to challenge and provoke the United States,  while the latter aims to restrain and diminish their military capabilities. Non-state actors achieve their agenda by escalating tensions and exerting pressure. In the current scenario, it is significantly challenging for the  United States to restrain Iran-backed militant groups,  especially considering that many of the Iraq-based groups are not only allies of the Baghdad government but are also integrated into its defense apparatuses.  Soon after the Jordan attack, in a statement, Kata’ib Hezbollah announced the suspension of attacks on US forces, probably due to the pressure from the Iraqi government and possible intervention from Iran to de-escalate.

Fourthly, the Iran-backed militant groups have associated their attacks on US interests with the Gaza war,  despite having distinct domestic and regional aspirations.  These groups aspire to expel US forces from the region and are exploiting the Gaza war  to advance this agenda.

Fifthly, as seen in previous instances of escalated conflicts and wars involving the  United States and non-state actors like Hezbollah, despite its military prowess, Washington faces numerous constraints, including domestic political considerations and regional diplomatic complexities, which significantly limit its options. Consequently, conducting military action across Syria and Iraq without the support of national governments is difficult to justify and execute.  On the other hand,  Iran adopts a strategy of “plausible deniability,” making it difficult for the  United States to directly target Iran. Over time, Iran has cultivated a symbiotic relationship with its proxies,  allowing it to disavow any involvement in attacks, as seen in the current situation. This limits US options, narrowing them down to targeting Iranian-linked entities or militia commanders outside Iran, a strategy that has thus far failed to effectively curb Iranian belligerency in the region.

Amid the heightened tensions, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken concluded his fifth visit to the region, however, he failed to achieve any tangible outcomes for a ceasefire. Hamas presented several demands that Blinken  termed as “non-starters.” Meanwhile, Netanyahu has vowed “total victory,” signaling plans for further escalation in Gaza with plans to start operations in Rafah. The killing of Abu Baqir as-Saadi has spiked anti-US public opinion,  with demonstrations and marches in Iraq. Additionally, armed groups in Iraq continue to exert pressure on the government to act faster to expel US forces from the country, which remains their primary agenda. As per recent reports, the pro-Iran militia umbrella group known as the “Islamic Resistance in Iraq” in a social media post warned of more strikes against US sites and interests in Iraq and across the region.

Editorial Team