Attacks on U.S. forces in Syria are pulling Washington’s attention back to the Middle East as it seeks to shift its focus and resources toward Russia and China.
With militants carrying out a series of drone strikes late last week, killing one American contractor, the Biden administration is grappling anew with a region it has slowly been trying to extract itself from.
It comes amid major geopolitical shifts in the area that stretches from Libya to Afghanistan, including renewed diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran earlier this month that were brokered by China; Russian-mediated negotiations between the Saudis and Syria to mend alliances; and failed talks between Iran and the United States to restart the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal.
“The sands are shifting in the Middle East. And in the last six months or so, they’ve been shifting very quickly,” said Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. “On the surface, most of this looks like and is being publicly described as de-escalation … [but] most of what is being described as de-escalation is paper thin.”
The realignments mean Washington must figure out a new diplomatic plan for the region and soon, or risk its influence fading to rivals Moscow and Beijing in the face of a more dangerous Iran, experts say.
“I think not addressing it and not undertaking greater attention to it — as much as I understand the Biden administration’s desire to just manage the Middle East — I think they’re going to have to be more activist here,” said Jonathan Panikoff, a former U.S. intelligence analyst on the Middle East who is now an expert on the region at the Atlantic Council.
Without a new focus in the region, “we risk not only undermining our own deterrence, but we risk real challenges by Iran in ways that are threatening to U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria in a way that will just continue in a manner that’s not acceptable,” he told The Hill.
Though the United States remains the dominating political and military force in the Middle East, its position has grown more precarious in the last half decade, following the deadly and chaotic pullout from Afghanistan in August 2021 and the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Iran nuclear agreement in 2018.
Washington also has made clear its intentions to shift focus away from the last 20 years of actively chasing terrorist groups such as Islamic State, the Taliban or al-Qaeda in favor of tackling threats from Russia and China.
But Washington’s commitment to the Middle East is continually tested by threats from Iran, including more than 80 attacks backed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) on U.S. forces in Syria since January 2021, according to U.S. Central Command head Gen. Erik Kurilla.
The U.S. military has responded to such attacks in four instances in the same timeframe, including a retaliatory U.S. airstrike in Syria on Iranian-affiliated facilities last week.
The last of such attacks – a suicide drone strike that killed the U.S. contractor and injured six other Americans — came hours before Kurilla was set to testify before the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday. In written comments to the committee, the four-star general also said that deterring Iran is “arguably more urgent than at any time in CENTCOM’s history” due to the IRGC arming militias with more advanced weapons including ballistic and cruise missiles and unmanned drones.
What’s more, the failure of the Iran nuclear talks has led Tehran to step closer to producing a nuclear weapon.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley repeated warnings on Tuesday that from the time of an Iranian decision, Iran could produce enough fissile material for nuclear weapon in less than two weeks, with only several months thereafter to actually produce a nuclear weapon.
He added that the U.S. military “has developed multiple options for our national leadership to consider” if or when Iran decides to develop a nuclear weapon.
“As far as CENTCOM and DOD is concerned, in the Middle East, Iran is absolutely front and center in terms of — not just posing active and present threats — but every single year getting exponentially more threatening, more sophisticated, and more of a challenge for the United States,” Lister said.
A turning focus to Asia
Concurrently, the Pentagon is facing pressure from the administration as well as from some in Congress to move resources from the Middle East to Asia, even as defense leaders warn of keeping an eye on Iran, he added.
“They see [the threats] on a day-to-day basis, and they don’t, I don’t think, perceive the highest levels of this administration necessarily to be quite so cognizant and supportive of doing what’s necessary to counter them or to confront them,” Lister told The Hill.
Case in point, President Biden stressed last week when addressing the Tehran-backed militia strikes that the United States did not want a war with Iran.
“Make no mistake, the United States does not — does not, emphasize — seek conflict with Iran,” Biden said Friday during a press conference with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Ottawa. “But be prepared for us to act forcefully to protect our people. That’s exactly what happened last night.”
Meanwhile on Tuesday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin revealed that the U.S. military has not taken any retaliatory strike for the additional attacks on U.S. bases in Syria on Friday, during which a U.S. servicemember was wounded.
The response has angered some on Capitol Hill, with several Republican senators on Tuesday admonishing the administration for failing to take more decisive action against Iran.
“What kind of signal do we think this sends to Iran when they can attack us 83 times since Joe Biden has become president, we only respond four? Maybe it’s because they know that we will not retaliate until they kill an American, which emboldens them to keep launching these attacks which kill Americans,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) told Austin and Milley at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
And Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said the administration allowed Tehran to “have the last word,” in the situation, vowing to act in Congress if administration officials fail to do so.
“Fortunately, the Senate has more chances to work its will. And this week’s debate needs to be just the beginning of a much broader and deeper look at the Biden Administration’s failed Middle East policies,” McConnell said in a statement.
“This Administration must change its strategy, rebuild deterrence, end Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability, and protect Americans and American interests from Iranian terrorism,” he added.
Experts are now watching for what, if any, actions the administration might take in its policy on the Middle East in the face of so many upheavals and growing threats.
Biden “was able to manage the U.S. policy toward Iran for the first years of the administration. I’m skeptical that it’s going to be able to be successful for the next few years, just because of the geopolitical dynamics have changed in the region,” Panikoff said.
“I think the question becomes, what is the strategic plan here?”