Will America’s targeting of militias in Syria and Iraq lead to a direct war with Iran?

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date of publication:
Jun 29 2021 14:27 GMT

Update date: June 29, 2021 14:45 GMT

The strikes ordered by US President Joe Biden on Iranian-backed militias in Syria and Iraq were not the first of their kind, and they likely won’t be the last under his new presidency.

But the important question for some Democrats in Biden’s party is: Does this pattern of attacks and counterattacks amount to an undisclosed conflict?

If so, they say, there is a possibility that the United States could get involved in a direct war with Iran without the participation of Congress, something that has become even more politically charged after two decades of “endless wars.”

“It’s hard to argue that this is not a war,” Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat who chairs an important Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee, told Reuters. Given the frequency of attacks on American forces, and with the escalation of our responses now.”

“What we’ve always worried about is the United States slipping into a war without the American people actually being able to have their say,” he added.

The two countries came close to the conflict that Democrats fear in 2020 when the United States killed a senior Iranian military commander (Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Corps), and Iran responded with missile strikes in Iraq that caused brain injuries to more than a hundred American soldiers. This came in the wake of a series of mutual attacks with armed factions backed by Iran.

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In the latest round, US fighter jets targeted, last Sunday, operational facilities and weapons depots in two locations in Syria and one in Iraq, in what the US Department of Defense (Pentagon) described as a direct response to drone attacks launched by armed factions on US forces and facilities in Iraq.

On Monday, US forces were targeted by missile fire in Syria in what appeared to be retaliation, but no one was hurt. The US military responded by targeting missile launch sites with artillery fire.

Emma Ashford, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council, said on Twitter: “A lot of people think ‘endless war’ is just emotional, but it’s really an apt description of the kind of strikes we’ve seen again (on Sunday), where there is no strategic objective and no clear end point. Just a permanent presence and reciprocal strikes.”

The Salami Slice Approach

The White House confirmed that the strikes, on Sunday, were aimed at reducing the escalation and deterring the operations of armed factions against US forces in the future.

Biden also said it’s legal.

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Referring to a provision of the US Constitution detailing the president’s powers as commander-in-chief, he said, “I have the authority under Article 2, and even those in their high towers who are reluctant to admit it have acknowledged it.”

The current administration, like previous administrations, does not see these episodes as an ongoing struggle, said Brian Finucane, a former official in the State Department’s Office of Legal Counsel.

He described this as the “salami” segment approach.

“They describe it as sporadic hostilities,” said Finucane, who is now with the International Crisis Group.

Finucane compared this to the tanker war with Iran in the 1980s, when the administration of President Ronald Reagan at the time viewed “each round of fighting as an isolated event.”

But experts say, this view does not take into account that the armed factions backed by Iran are waging a continuous and escalating campaign against the US military presence in Iraq.

Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy warned that factional use of drones appears to be getting increasingly dangerous, with the use of GPS guidance and the precise targeting of intelligence, reconnaissance and missile defense assets of the US-led coalition. .

Knights said: “The attacks of the Iraqi factions on the coalition points in Iraq are increasing in quantity and quality. Unless deterrence is restored, the odds of American deaths will increase.”

Philip Smith of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy also stated that the factions’ secondary goal, after the goal of driving the United States out of the region, is to show the United States, the Iraqi government, and others how good they are at using more sophisticated weapons such as drones.

Members of Congress are working to repeal some of the war authorization powers that Republican and Democratic presidents have used to justify past attacks on Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.

But that wouldn’t necessarily prevent Biden or any other president from launching defensive air strikes.

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Senator Murphy, after receiving a briefing on the events from Biden’s national security team, said he remains concerned that US forces are in Iraq to fight ISIS, not to fight Iranian-backed militias.

Murphy added that if Biden was worried about going to Congress for powers to wage war, then perhaps he should allay Americans’ skepticism about interventions in the Middle East.

He continued, “If Congress has difficulty authorizing military action against the Iranian-backed factions, it will be largely because those we represent do not want it. This is the missing link in this discussion.”





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