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ConflictsMiddle East

US targets Iran militias in response to Jordan attack

Andreas Noll
February 2, 2024

After a drone attack in Jordan, the United States considers strikes against Iranian-backed militias. President Joe Biden wants to avoid a 'wider war' in the Middle East.

US President Joe Biden
US President Joe Biden said he did not want a "wider war" in the Middle East Image: Kent Nishimura/AFP

US President Joe Biden is expected to attend a ceremony to honor the three US troops killed at a US base in Jordan on Sunday in a drone attack blamed on an umbrella group of Iran-backed militias.

On Tuesday, he indicated that he had made a decision regarding his administration's response: "I don't think we need a wider war in the Middle East," he said at the White House. "That's not what I'm looking for."

US officials have reportedly told US network CBS News that plans have been approved for a series of strikes on Iranian targets in Syria and Iraq that would take place over a number of days.

Speaking at a news conference on Thursday, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said the US was trying to "hold the right people accountable" without escalating the conflict in the region.

While details on the planned strikes remain unclear, there appears to be more clarity about which of the Iran-backed troops launched the drone attack on the US camp in northern Jordan on the border with Syria.

"We believe that the attack in Jordan was planned, resourced, and facilitated by an umbrella group called the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, which contains multiple groups, including [the pro-Iranian] Kataib Hezbollah (not to be confused with Hezbollah in Lebanon — the ed.)," US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said in Washington on Wednesday.

Since Hamas' terrorist attack on Israel on October 7 and Israel's subsequent retaliation in Gaza, there have been a number of attacks on US troops in the region. Since October 18, 2023, the US military has counted at least 166 attacks on US military facilities, including 67 in Iraq and 98 in Syria (as of January 30).

But the January 28 attack in Jordan was the first one that killed US soldiers since the current war between Israel and Hamas broke out.

A satellite picture of a US base in Jordan
Three US troops were killed when this base in northeastern Jordan was attackedImage: Planet Labs PBC/picture alliance

Targeted attacks on Iranian facilities and troops

In a report, the Atlantic Council, a US think tank, said the US military, which has several aircraft carriers in the region, might carry out targeted attacks on Iranian facilities and troops. Iran funds many of the militias in the region and supplies them with weapons. Members of the Republican Party in particular have called for harsh action against Iran. 

What could be conceivable are attacks on naval bases as well as on units of the Revolutionary Guards. According to Iranian reports, several members of this paramilitary organization were killed in an alleged Israeli airstrike on the Syrian capital Damascus last month. 

The US military could also carry out more airstrikes on Iranian-backed militia: in Syria, Iraq or elsewhere in the region. Its ally Israel frequently launches such attacks on strategic facilities, weapons depots, or the bases of important military leaders, to eliminate what it perceives as potential sources of danger.

Observers doubt that the US will attack Iran directly.

"I would say that it is more likely that the US will carry out surgical strikes against Iranian facilities outside Iran and not bomb Iran directly in order to avoid a major war with the Islamic Republic," Middle East expert Kristin Helberg told DW.

But Biden could order special operations or covert actions against high-ranking Iranian leaders or key institutions of the regime, which would require the deployment of intelligence services and special forces.

An aircraft carrier with several planes on it and one being launched
The USS Dwight D. Eisenhower is one of several US aircraft carriers currently in the Middle East Image: Andrew Schneider/U.S. Navy photo/abaca/picture alliance

Political and diplomatic measures

Even if the US response is likely to include a military component, the Biden administration also has a broad range of political and diplomatic measures at its disposal. It could try to bring Iran to the negotiating table to seek a political solution. But it is more likely that the US will push ahead with the international isolation of Iran to increase pressure on the country's regime.

Possible political measures could include tightening existing economic sanctions. Washington could also exert more pressure on other countries and international financial institutions to restrict the regime leaders' financial freedom of movement.

The US strengthened its military presence in the region immediately after Hamas' attack on Israel. It might do the same in the wake of the attack in Jordan, in an attempt to increase deterrence. It might also improve its technical capacities to defend troops against drone attacks and better equip allies in the region.

"The big dilemma is that retaliation and deterrence have not worked so far," said Helberg. "The United States has carried out dozens of retaliatory attacks, which have only led to further attacks, for example by the Houthis or the Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria. So, deterrence is not working."

This article was originally written in German.

US vows response to deadly drone attack