American airstrikes on Iran-linked paramilitaries in Syria this week were a deterrent response to attacks on U.S. forces in neighboring Iraq. Yet they also to seem have been a conscious refutation by the Biden administration of the Trump administration’s wild, dangerous approach to both Iraq and Iran.
Trump’s recklessness almost ignited a regional war. The Biden team’s handling of Thursday’s airstrikes looks very intentionally un-Trump—but Trump left Biden with a dangerous enough predicament in Iraq that even a more careful, deliberate approach might not be enough to fix it.
On Thursday evening, U.S. aircraft bombed Iraqi paramilitary factions on the Syrian-Iraqi border, in what the Pentagon said was a deterrent response and an effort to preempt “ongoing threats.” An official in one Iraqi paramilitary group told Reuters that the U.S. strikes had killed one fighter and wounded four.
The U.S. airstrikes followed a Feb. 15 rocket attack on a base used by U.S. and partner forces in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan region, and which killed one civilian contractor and wounded others. A wounded Iraqi civilian died several days later. On Feb. 22, three rockets targeted the U.S. embassy in Baghdad but left only material damage.
The Syrian government denounced the U.S. strikes “in the strongest terms.” One of the Iraqi factions targeted, Kataib Hizbullah, likewise condemned American “criminality”.
U.S. forces are in Iraq as part of the U.S.-led international Coalition against ISIS to support Iraqi efforts to combat the jihadist group. In recent years, however, violence with Iran-linked paramilitaries has risked overshadowing the counter-ISIS mission.
Thursday’s airstrikes seemed almost like a replay of U.S. airstrikes in December 2019. Then the Trump administration responded to a deadly rocket attack by bombing Kataib Hizbulllah facilities on the Syrian-Iraqi border, killing 25 fighters and injuring more than 50. After angry protesters stormed the U.S. embassy compound, Trump retaliated—in a stunning, 0-to-60 escalation—by killing Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi paramilitary veteran and security official Jamal Jafar (better known by the nom du guerre “Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis”) in a drone strike. For days, the Middle East seemed on the brink of a broader U.S.-Iran war. The tension only broke after Iranian missile strikes on Iraqi bases hosting U.S. forces injured but did not kill U.S. personnel, which, perversely, opened the way for de-escalation.
The U.S. presence in Iraq has remained precarious ever since. Violence in Iraq has periodically surged, U.S.-led Coalition forces have evacuated most of their Iraqi bases, and the Trump administration nearly shut the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Iraqi paramilitaries continue to maintain that Coalition forces are a foreign “occupation.”
You could be forgiven for a feeling of déjà vu, then, at Thursday’s airstrikes on some of the same Iraqi paramilitary factions, hitting the same stretch of Iraqi-Syrian border—and worrying about a repeat of the spiraling escalation that marked the start of 2020.
Yet this latest action by the Biden administration also differs from Trump’s December 2019 airstrikes in some important respects.
First, the regional context is different. The backdrop for the December 2019 airstrikes was the Trump administration’s campaign of “maximum pressure” on Iran, a strategy whose stated goals amounted, effectively, to regime change. The rocket fire on U.S. forces in Iraq that precipitated those 2019 airstrikes was seemingly part of an asymmetric response by Iran’s regional partners to crushing U.S. economic sanctions on Iran—after all, Iran could hardly reciprocate usefully by levying its own sanctions on the U.S.
The Biden administration, by contrast, has expressed its intention to return to the Iran nuclear deal that Trump left, which promises a relaxation of economic pressure on Iran. More generally, the Biden administration has seemed eager to reduce the temperature regionally, down from the constant atmosphere of near-war stoked by the Trump administration.
The Biden administration’s messaging around Thursday’s airstrikes reflected that change in the regional context. The Trump administration, in announcing its 2019 airstrikes, pointedly emphasized these Iraqi paramilitaries’ links to Iran. The Pentagon’s statement closed with a deterrent warning aimed mainly at Iran: “Iran and their KH proxy forces must cease their attacks on U.S. and coalition forces, and respect Iraq's sovereignty, to prevent additional defensive actions by U.S. forces.” Trump actually escalated his rhetoric further in the latter days of his presidency, threatening to retaliate directly against Iran for rocket fire in Iraq. “Some friendly health advice to Iran: If one American is killed, I will hold Iran responsible. Think it over,” he tweeted in December 2020.
The Biden administration, on the other hand, called the Iraqi factions it bombed “Iranian-backed militant groups” but mainly kept its focus narrowly on the two specific groups it alleged were responsible for recent rocket attacks. When Biden was asked by a reporter Friday what kind of message the strikes sent to Iran, he said, “You can’t act with impunity. Be careful.” Yet officials have otherwise avoided turning the strikes into a Trump-style U.S.-Iran duel.
The Biden team’s rhetorical restraint may reflect their consciousness of how to manage a larger engagement with Iran that is delicate and encompasses a number of issues, of which restoring the Iran nuclear deal seems to be the overarching priority. They may also be more sensitive to the legality of military action, and how confidently they can attribute responsibility for the Erbil rocket attack.
Even if the Biden administration were inclined to blame Iran for the Erbil attack, the real extent of Iranian control over Iraq’s armed factions is debated, particularly after the killing of Suleimani and Muhandis. Without them, these Iran-linked factions have reportedly become more fractious and inclined to unilateral action.
In addition to its rhetoric, the Biden administration departed from Trump’s approach in other key respects. The reported toll of Thursday’s U.S. airstrikes—one fighter, not dozens—was seemingly more proportionate to the Erbil rocket fire. The Biden administration said the bombing was “conducted together with diplomatic measures,” including consultation with Coalition partners whose personnel risk retaliation alongside Americans in Iraq.
Biden administration officials’ emphasis that they hit these factions inside Syrian territory is another seeming contrast with the Trump administration, which provoked condemnation from even Iraqi officials amicable to the U.S. last year when it unilaterally bombed paramilitaries in Iraq and killed uninvolved Iraqis. By striking instead in Syria, Biden might have mitigated concerns about violating Iraqi sovereignty and avoided political controversy that could imperil a friendly government in Baghdad.
These paramilitary factions are part of Iraq’s official auxiliary “Popular Mobilization Forces.” In Syria, though, they operate outside Iraqi state auspices as part of the Iran-led “Resistance Axis.”
Still, these paramilitaries dispute U.S. officials’ grasp of geography. In a statement mourning the fighter killed in Thursday’s airstrikes, Kataib Hizbullah said he was killed in “the Iraqi region of al-Qaim specifically,” implying he died on the Iraqi side of the border. Kataib Hizbullah described the man both as “its martyr” but also a member of the Popular Mobilization’s 46th Brigade, who was “standing guard on the Iraqi-Syrian border, protecting Iraq’s land and people from the criminal bands of ISIS” and “joined the caravan of martyrs for the nation’s sovereignty and dignity.”
Wherever the U.S. bombed, moreover, the Iraqi government might still face political blowback. How much the government of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi knew in advance of Thursday’s airstrikes is unclear. U.S. officials had previously said they were supporting Iraqi authorities’ investigation into rocket attacks but would also act, in coordination with Iraqi partners, at a time and place of their choosing. Biden spoke by phone with Kadhemi on Tuesday; a White House readout said the two had “agreed that those responsible for [recent rocket] attacks must be held fully to account.”
Iraqi paramilitaries and their political allies have seized in particular on remarks by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. In the wake of the strikes, Austin said, “We allowed and encouraged the Iraqis to investigate and develop intelligence for us, and that was very helpful to us in refining the target.” U.S. officials have since tried to walk that back and denied using Iraqi information in Thursday’s airstrikes. But Austin’s comments might still endanger Kadhemi. Iran-linked factions had previously alleged Kadhemi was complicit in the killing of Soleimani and Muhandis in his former capacity as Iraqi intelligence chief.
Even if this week’s U.S. airstrikes do not spark a repeat of last year’s escalation, they risk perpetuating a cycle of violence that raises questions about the continued value of the U.S. presence in Iraq. U.S. and Coalition partners still play an important role enabling Iraqi forces to pursue ISIS militants, who wage ongoing guerrilla warfare on Iraq’s rural periphery. Coalition forces are still in the country at the invitation of the Iraqi government; without their technical contributions, the ISIS insurgency seems likely to become more dangerous.
Yet if U.S. forces become more occupied, on balance, with defending themselves than with their counter-ISIS mission, then eventually they are a net negative for Iraqi security. With every new spasm of violence, Iraqi lives are put at risk.
This is not a dilemma of the Biden administration’s creation. It was the Trump’s aggressive policy of “maximum pressure” that seems to have started this cycle of violence. But now that the cycle is in motion, it is far from clear that even the most deliberate, finely tuned U.S. policy can usefully stop it.
The Biden administration said it carried out Thursday’s strikes “in a deliberate manner that aims to de-escalate the overall situation in both eastern Syria and Iraq.” But now that the U.S. has acted, the initiative belongs to Iraq’s paramilitary factions. They are the ones who will choose when and how to respond, and whether the Biden administration’s more calibrated approach actually does any good.