Armed groups backed by Iran have carried out at least two strikes on American forces since Friday, when the United States hit dozens of Iran-related targets in Syria and Iraq.
Pentagon spokesperson Maj. Gen. Patrick Ryder confirmed in a press briefing Monday that two attacks had taken place in Syria and that there had been no casualties. He also suggested that the Pentagon expects Iran's proxy groups to continue their targeting of American forces in spite of the February 3rd US airstrikes.
In the meantime, Yemen's Iran-aligned Houthis said on Tuesday they fired naval missiles at two ships, Star Nasia and Morning Tide, in the Red Sea.
The group's military spokesman Yahya Sarea said in a televised speech that they were US and British ships, but records from shipping trackers show they are flagged to the Marshall Islands and Barbados.
The US air campaign against targets in Syria and Iraq was authorized in response to the drone attack on January 28 that resulted in the deaths of three American soldiers and injuries to 40 others at a US base in Jordan. President Joe Biden and his team heavily publicized it both domestically, as evidence of their resolve, and internationally, as a deterrent against such attacks. As things stand, it is hard to say if the administration achieved these two goals.
At home, pressure is still mounting. Biden critics are by no means satisfied with his shot at ‘retaliation’. They accuse him of giving Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) enough time and clues to disperse and avoid a bloodied nose. And abroad, the message from Iran is clear: we had no presence or interest in the sites targeted –if we had, we would have hit back.
Ryder confirmed in his briefing that no Iranians were killed in the US airstrikes in Iraq and Syria in the early hours of Saturday local time. “CENTCOM is continuing to assess but initial indications are: we’re not aware of any Iranians killed,” he said.
What irked the critics was Maj. Gen. Ryder's remark that the administration doesn’t want a long-term campaign against Iran's military and associated proxy groups in Iraq and Syria. This apparently contradicts statements in the past ten days that the US is not done with those groups and will continue to target them.
“Our goal is not to… go full-scale war against Iranian proxy groups in Iraq and Syria,” Ryder said. “That’s not what we’re there for. We’re there to conduct the mission and support the defeat of [the Islamic State].”
Critics of the Biden administration say that such messaging is counterproductive as it signals “weakness”, which emboldens Iran and its proxies to be more adventurous, ultimately forcing the US to target IRGC or other regime assets directly, which, ironically, is what President Biden seems determined to avoid at all costs.
“I think you need a decisive strike, just like Trump did with Soleimani,” the House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Michael McCaul told Fox News Monday. “They took Soleimani out and guess what, Iran backed down.”
Rep. McCaul also said that the retaliatory strikes last Friday were not satisfactory, contrary to what Ryder said in his briefing. “The targets may have been good,” McCaul said, “but the success was not.”
Officials from the Biden administration have repeatedly said that the airstrikes on IRGC-affiliated targets in Iraq and Syria were just the beginning, and that there’s more to come. But there seems to be a growing concern in Washington that even a string of attacks would fail to deter Iran –unless it hits “what matters to the Ayatollah.”
A Wall Street Journal editorial Tuesday drew a bleak picture, taking into account Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
“President Biden’s retaliatory strikes in Iraq and Syria on the weekend were targeted to avoid hitting Iranians to avoid escalation,” the WSJ editorial reads,. “Imagine the restraints on the U.S. when Iran has nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them against U.S. allies or the U.S. homeland.”