Iranian escalation operations against US forces, spread across multiple countries in the region, persist. Iranian proxies have conducted strikes against several US bases in Iraq and Syria, prompting direct retaliation from the United States. The latest escalation unfolded on January 28, 2024, with the United States announcing the deaths of three US soldiers and injuries surpassing 30 following a drone strike on one of its military bases in northeastern Jordan near the Syrian border. This development is undeniably a significant turning point in the escalating situation in the region, occurring concurrently with the Israeli war on the Gaza Strip. This incident is expected to have far-reaching implications and repercussions on the regional landscape.
Details of the Attack and the Positions of the Parties Involved in the Attack
The operation that targeted the US base situated on the Jordanian border with Syria and Iraq can be analyzed through a set of observations and factors:
A Qualitative Escalation in Terms of Damage and Geography
The targeting of the US military base near the Jordanian-Syrian border signifies a major escalation and a qualitative shift compared to the skirmishes between US and Iranian proxies in the region over the past few years. This incident occurred against the backdrop of the Israeli war on the Gaza Strip, and several factors contribute to its significance:
- – Direct attack: This operation directly targeted US forces in the region, marking the largest attack against them.
- – Scale of the attack: The deaths of US soldiers and injuries distinguish it as a substantial escalation.
- – Image improvement: The operation can be viewed as an Iranian attempt to enhance its image in response to repeated operations by Washington and Tel Aviv that targeted some of its commanders in Syria in recent times.
The specific location targeted in this attack on the Syrian-Jordanian border brings a new dimension to the attrition struggle between Tehran and Washington. Unlike previous attacks by pro-Iran militias that were directed at US interests within the borders of their respective countries, such as Iraq, this operation stands out as the first of its kind. In this instance, the “Islamic Resistance in Iraq, mainly Kata’ib Hezbollah, targeted US bases located outside the borders of Iraq and Syria. This indicates the potential for targeting interests in various countries, posing the risk of destabilizing the regional landscape and expanding the circle of conflict.
Conflicting Narratives Regarding the Attack
The statements from the parties involved or concerned with the attack on the US military base, in which three US soldiers were killed, reflected varying accounts regarding the location. According to the US Central Command, the attack targeted a logistical support base in Tower 22, situated at the border triangle that separates Jordan, Syria and Iraq, specifically in northeastern Jordan toward the border with Syria. This implies that the operation occurred in Rukban, northeastern Jordan, near Al Tanf in Syria. Initially, Jordan’s statement confirmed that the attack happened outside its border. However, later, an official statement from Jordan clarified that the “terrorist attack” targeted an advanced site on the border with Syria without specifying whether it was on the Jordanian-Syrian border or within Syria itself.
The statement released by the office of the Islamic Resistance in Iraq indicated that its factions targeted four external bases. Three of these bases were in Syria (Al-Shaddadi Base, Al-Rukban Base, and Al-Tanf Base). At the same time, the fourth was directed toward the Zevulun naval facility near the city of Haifa, using drones. The statement explicitly linked the attack to Israel’s actions in Gaza, suggesting that Iran and its affiliated militias aimed to exert pressure on US President Joe Biden. The intention appears to be to force him into a dilemma: either pressure Israel for a ceasefire in Gaza or confront a continued escalation by Iran in Iraq and Syria against the presence and positions of US forces in the region.
More Iranian Pressure on the US Administration
Since the commencement of the Israeli war on Gaza, Tehran has actively worked to reinforce its narrative that the ongoing conflict in Gaza will reshape the region. To convey this message, Iran has resorted to escalating tensions and exerting pressure on the US military presence in the region. This pressure has been manifested through an increase in the frequency of attacks on US forces, serving as a signal of Iran’s capability to impact Washington’s interests or those of its allies in the region. In this context, Iran has expanded its actions to include escalation in the Red Sea, direct bombings of residential homes in Erbil under the pretext of “espionage,” and attacks on opposition-controlled areas in Idlib, Syria. The recent round of escalation introduces another dimension to Tehran’s strategy of challenging the current US administration and applying pressure. Iran capitalizes on what it perceives as a lack of US seriousness in countering its regional initiatives, particularly considering US threats accompanied by messages indicating a reluctance to escalate and expand the conflict in the region. This sentiment was recently echoed in a statement from US National Security Council Spokesperson John Kirby. “We are not interested in a broader conflict in the region; we’re not looking for another war,” Kirby said. Iran is keenly aware of this perceived weakness in the Biden administration and aims to leverage it, especially in light of the upcoming US elections later this year.
Jordan: On the Verge of Involvement in the Regional Dispute
Despite the inconsistent official statements from Jordan regarding the scope and location of the recent targeting, the underlying reality of Jordan’s situation is apparent. The country is facing ongoing political and security challenges, exacerbated by Iran across its borders with Syria. These challenges encompass issues such as drug and weapons smuggling into Jordan and political pressure on the Jordanian government since the start of the war in Gaza on October 7, 2023. The United States and Israel have placed pressure on Amman for the relocation of Palestinians to Jordan. Iran is adding further pressure to Amman through the presence of its proxy militias on the Jordanian border with Iraq. The recent operation can be viewed as one of the manifestations of Jordan’s prior warnings and long-term concerns about regional escalation. In response, Jordan evaluates its position, emphasizing the need to enhance its military preparedness and weapons systems. This proactive approach aims to mitigate increasing Iranian pressure, address border security complexities and guard against potential threats originating from the shared borders with Syria and Iraq.
Biden’s Options and the Limits of the US Response
Both the magnitude of the recent operation and the accompanying narrative represent a dangerous escalation that demands an immediate response from the US administration commensurate with the gravity of the situation. This response should align with the need to uphold the reputation of the United States, both domestically and internationally. This becomes crucial amid increasing attrition against US influence and the necessity to establish deterrence against Iranian behavior and its affiliated militias in the region. The aim is to make them reconsider before further operations targeting US interests. While the initial reaction from the United States, as reflected in statements from President Biden and officials in the Pentagon and US Congress, appears more severe than responses to previous operations, the crucial factor lies in Washington’s actual and on-the-ground response. The response scenarios and their implications on the regional stage can be summarized as follows:
- – Continuing the previous pattern: This potential response is likely to involve striking the positions of Iran-backed armed groups within Iraq or Syria or the assassination of their key leaders . This course of action, while repetitive and anticipated, may not significantly alter the behavior of Iran-backed groups. This is due to Washington having lost the elements of deterrence and surprise in its responses, coupled with Iran’s policy of denial regarding its involvement in the attack. Instead, Iran’s militias may willingly assume full responsibility for the attack, showcasing their adaptability and readiness for such a scenario. However, pursuing this path may lead to continued criticism of the Biden administration for adopting what might be perceived as a weak response. Such a response might be considered insufficient, failing to match the level of damage inflicted on US forces and falling short of achieving Washington’s intended goal – resetting deterrence in the region.
- – Qualitative US escalation commensurate with the pattern of the latest attack on its base: Given the nature of the target, its geographical location and the extent of the losses incurred, an unconventional US response to this operation is deemed necessary. The current US administration faces significant criticism, particularly from political circles, notably Republicans, regarding the management of the crisis in the Middle East and the security of US forces in the region. There are calls to go beyond targeting pro-Iran armed groups and paramilitaries and instead strike Iran itself. This comes in response to the perceived weakness of previous responses and the absence of a deterrent effect on Iran and its militias, allowing them to carry out repeated attacks. Suppose the US administration opts for such a course of action. In this case, it will not only be driven by the imperative to safeguard its presence and national security. This course could also serve as a means to draw domestic and international attention. The incident might be strategically utilized in the context of the upcoming presidential elections.
- – Conducting a strike combining both previous patterns: To address this, a specific and targeted response could involve striking Iranian militia camps in the region. Additionally, surgical strikes deep inside Iran may be directed at strategic sites, including Iranian security and military institutions. However, such actions would escalate the current conflict in the region even further.
- – US withdrawal as a response to Iranian pressure: Another perspective on the potential US response takes into account the frequent news and leaks suggesting the possibility of the United States withdrawing its forces from Iraq and possibly Syria. While such news has surfaced before, the latest leak coincides with heightened tensions in the region, fueled by the conflict in Gaza and increased pressure from Iran. The leaks appear to be a result of Iran-backed groups escalating attacks on US military installations, taking advantage of Washington’s reluctance to escalate the situation for various reasons. However, it is improbable that the US administration will succumb to such Iranian pressures, given the current regional dynamics constraining Washington’s options in making such a decision.
The United States will inevitably respond to the attack on the US base in Jordan, and all the previously mentioned response options are equally plausible. However, in our assessment, the response may not serve as a deterrent, as some anticipate, by targeting inside Iran. Instead, the US administration is likely to opt for targeted strikes that continually impact the infrastructure of pro-Iran armed groups and their field commanders in multiple regions. Iran itself may play a role in controlling the pace of clashes to prevent their escalation. This assessment is supported by the Iran-backed group in Iraq, Kata’ib Hezbollah, which has preemptively announced the suspension of its operations against US forces, possibly anticipating Washington’s response to the killing of its soldiers.
In conclusion, the recent operation targeting US forces in the border triangle between Jordan, Syria and Iraq underscores the escalating tensions across the region on various fronts, spanning from Iraq and Syria to Yemen, Lebanon and now Jordan. This marks a significant breach of engagement norms and a pivotal moment in the regional conflict, pointing toward a protracted war of attrition between all involved parties. Militia operations are expected to intensify against regional interests, Western and US targets, and in key sea lanes like the Strait of Hormuz, impacting global trade in the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf. Meanwhile, Washington faces a substantial test of its international reputation. Whether detailed or not, the nature and extent of its response will hinge on the approach of the current US administration, its strategic outlook, and the management of shared interests with Iran, potentially at the expense of addressing Iran’s transgressions in the region’s countries. As for Tehran, it will continue using its paramilitaries in the region as a bargaining chip for reaching a ceasefire in Gaza. It aims to hijack the current political trajectory between Washington and several Arab nations, through which Arab nations are trying to bring to a halt the Israeli military operation in the Palestinian territories as a preliminary step toward achieving a permanent and equitable settlement to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Iran, meanwhile, seeks to inflame regional security tensions further, marshaling its proxy groups in the face of the US administration to stop the Israeli operations in Palestine according to Iran’s rules. Iran, therefore, seeks to entrench itself in the equation, strengthening the presence of Hamas and Iranian proxies throughout the region — given that they represent the levers for Iranian dominance in the region.