By Zou Zhiqiang
It is reported that on February 2, the US military used warplanes and drones to carry out airstrikes on targets such as command centers, weapons depots and other facilities of Iranian-backed armed groups in Syria and Iraq, in retaliation for the deaths of three US soldiers in Jordan who were killed in a drone strike.
Prior to this, US military bases in Iraq and Syria had been subjected to several attacks, most of which were believed to have been carried out by militia groups from Syria and Iraq, such as the Islamic Resistance in Iraq. These militant groups claimed that the attacks were in response to US support for Israel's attack on Hamas and to force the withdrawal of all US troops from Iraq and other places. According to the US military, US military bases in the Middle East have come under major attack since October 2023. This is the first time a US military base in Jordan has been attacked, and the first time a US soldier has died since the outbreak of a new round of conflict between Palestine and Israel.
In response to the frequent attacks on military bases in the Middle East, the US has repeatedly conducted airstrikes against militia forces in Iraq and Syria. However, the deterrent effect has been very limited, and the US is unable to stop the swarming attacks and harassment by local militia groups. The US confirmed that the attack on its military base in Jordan was carried out by the Iraqi militia, Islamic Resistance. The US believes they are supported by Iran and has repeatedly accused Iran of being the hidden hand behind these incidents. There have even been voices within the US calling for a direct strike against Iran, raising widespread concerns about the possibility of a wider conflict in the Middle East. However, both the Pentagon and the White House have stated that they "do not want a war with Iran", with President Joe Biden reiterating his desire to avoid a wider conflict in the Middle East. This suggests that the US is trying to strike a balance between a strong response and avoiding conflict spillover.
The frequent attacks on US military bases in the Middle East not only put military and political pressure on the Biden administration but also reflect the awkward position of the US in the Middle East.
The US is increasingly confronted with the challenges of asymmetric conflicts in the Middle East. Various non-state actors in the region, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine, the Houthis in Yemen, and militia groups in Iraq and Syria, have wielded increasing influence in the region and exhibited distinct anti-American and anti-Israeli characteristics. Traditional US military advantages and deterrence are difficult to apply against these non-state armed groups. They use rockets, drones, missiles, and other means to flexibly attack US military bases and facilities in the Middle East, keeping the US constantly on the defensive and trapped in the dilemma of asymmetric conflict.
The fragmented approach of the US in dealing with the Middle East crisis makes it difficult to solve the problem fundamentally. The recent frequent attacks on US military bases are closely related to the core issue of the Palestine-Israel conflict. The uninvited presence of US forces in Syria and their reluctance to leave Iraq have already met with resistance from the respective governments and populations. The outbreak of the latest round of the Palestine-Israel conflict and the apparent US favoritism toward Israel have greatly stimulated anti-US sentiment in the Middle East. Against this backdrop, non-state armed groups have become more active in responding to the Gaza conflict with attacks, expanding their influence and, of course, targeting local US military bases. Meanwhile, the US treats the crises in Palestine, Yemen, Iraq, and Syria in a compartmentalized manner, avoiding its responsibility for the core issues in the Middle East and attempting to resolve the crises separately through force. The result will only add fuel to the fire and cause the conflict to spread further.
The US strategic disengagement from the Middle East and its established strategy of maintaining regional dominance has encountered new resistance. The US hopes to maintain regional dominance by coordinating a limited military presence and alliances in line with its strategic withdrawal from the Middle East, and to focus on great power competition. However, the regional turmoil since the outbreak of the latest Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not only disrupted US plans to mediate between Israel and Arab countries, but has also forced the US to increase its military, political and diplomatic involvement in the Middle East and even to return to the region in the short term.
In the future, the comprehensive game between the US-Israeli camp and the "resistance camp" led by Iran will continue on multiple fronts, with indirect conflicts and shadow wars on many fronts being inevitable. However, it must be noted that the current situation in the Middle East is highly complex and sensitive, and the vicious cycle of attacks and retaliation will only lead to further escalation of regional tensions.
(The author is from the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Fudan University.)