On Feb. 26, President Joe Biden authorized an airstrike just over the border in Syria. The stated purpose of the strike was a retaliatory measure after an Iranian-based militia, Hezbollah, attacked an airport in Erbil, Iraq that killed a civilian contractor and wounded at least seven Americans. The American airstrikes came after more than a week of consultation with key Cabinet officials and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, aimed at a calibrated military response. Seven 500-pound bombs were dropped on a small cluster of buildings on the Syria-Iraq border that were specifically meant to destroy a controlled unit of Iranian-backed militia troops, including Kata’ib Hezbollah and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada. The attack in Erbil was claimed by Awliya al-Dam, an unrecognized group, but intelligence determined that the group is a front for Iran’s proxy attacks on Americans. The number of casualties among the Iranian troops has not been officially released, but American officials stated that a handful of militia members were killed. Nevertheless, the United States is not seeking to escalate tensions with Iran but rather to send a message: “You can’t act with impunity,” a message Biden reiterated publicly that was also sent confidentially to Tehran. The tit-for-tat scenario playing out between Iran and the United States traces back to the drone strike in Baghdad that killed top Iranian commander, Major General Qasem Soleimani.
A new report from The Wall Street Journal reveals further deliberation by Biden on the days and hours leading up to the airstrike in Syria. National security officials considered potential responses in Syria, Yemen and Iraq. Because of the United States’ partnership with the Iraqi government, they chose to target Syria to maintain diplomatic relations. The morning of Feb. 25, Biden finalized two targets in Syria after an assessment of risk factors. Just 30 minutes before the strike with F-15Es in the air, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan reported to Biden that there were women and children around the second target. Biden called off the strike.
The airstrike in Syria marks Biden’s first use of force since entering office. His decision to do so is in continuation of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East that prioritizes the protection of Americans overseas. The number of U.S. troops stationed in Iraq to aid the fight against the Islamic State group has decreased to under 2500. Though long-term goals of Biden’s policy in the Middle East have not been clearly outlined, the actions by the government will have consequences for the region and the United States. The United States has a long history of interfering in the Middle East through the use of oil, proxies and bombs. Since President George W. Bush advocated for increased troops in Iraq, the U.S. has expressed that without its presence and influence in the Middle East, the entire region would descend into chaos; however, each step that the United States further entrenches itself into the affairs of the region, the more chaos and violence springs up. Emerging diplomacy among Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates following Trump’s withdrawal of troops from the region were quickly dashed when he then ordered the assassination of Soleimani. With the “global war on terrorism” waged by the Bush administration in the early 2000s, the idea of boots on the ground in the Middle East has been equated to a fight for freedom and democratic values in the American mind. Yet this “freedom fight” has led to death and destruction in the region, dating back to the start of imperialist expansion following the end of World War I.
The United States government must ask itself what purpose the troops still stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan serve: Are they there to fight terrorism and disseminate Western values, or is it simply a ploy for oil money and control? Words may elicit the notions of democracy and freedom being the sole purpose, but the very ideals are questioned when Saudi oil partnerships seem to take precedence over the list of human rights abuses committed by the Saudi government in neighboring countries. In one way or another, the terrain of the Middle East has become a playground for the United States, exploiting it through both ineffective diplomacy and force.
Take for example Syria, the target for the U.S. airstrike. The country has endured a decade of war by state and non-state actors, leaving it divided economically and politically among the government, the Islamic State group, Kurds, Turkish troops and other organizations. The economy is in distress with the Syrian pound trading at about one percent of pre-Civil War value on the black market. In the surrounding areas, 6.6 million registered Syrian refugees must live outside of their homeland for safety reasons. One of the causes of this crisis is U.S. sanctions, a failed attempt to advance human rights under the broken Assad regime in Syria that has only created more poverty in the country.
The espoused foreign policy goals the United States proposes to its people and the world do not match their practice. Pressure from Iran shown through their violent attacks on U.S. military forces can justify the decision to launch an airstrike in Syria for now, but sooner or later our presence there will be obsolete and inessential. The government has the power and resources to aid victims of war waged by the United States. Bombs cannot be the only answer.