Shock and awe as America strikes Iran’s proxies

NIGHT AFTER night, for almost a week, sources around the Middle East said the strikes were imminent. At around midnight on February 3rd they finally happened: B-1 bombers flew from America and hit more than 85 targets at seven locations in western Iraq and eastern Syria. The sorties had been expected ever since a drone attack on January 28th, carried out by Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, killed three American soldiers and injured dozens more at a remote outpost in north-eastern Jordan, near the border with Syria.

The Pentagon said it had targeted both Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and its proxy militias. Over the past two decades Iran has built an “axis of resistance”—a network of armed forces and affiliates across the region that have become a huge menace. There are reports of casualties, although numbers remain fuzzy. Among the locations America bombed were al-Qaim, an Iraqi border town often used to smuggle weapons and drugs, and al-Bukamal, a Syrian city where Iranian-backed militias have a big presence. Both have been the target of previous American attacks.

Joe Biden, the American president, suggested that more strikes would follow. “Our response began today. It will continue at times and places of our choosing,” he said in a statement. The administration is simultaneously engaged in an intense bout of diplomacy over the conflict in Gaza. Antony Blinken, the secretary of state, is expected to visit Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, Israel and the West Bank in the coming days.

The strikes are intended to show America’s resolve without provoking direct war against Iran. There are plenty of worries about escalation, however. Iraq complained that the strikes against militias on its territory “violated its sovereignty” and warned that the region was on “the brink of an abyss”. Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign-policy chief, compared the Middle East to “a boiler that can explode”.

These were perhaps the biggest raids America has ever carried out against the IRGC and its allies, both in the number of bombs dropped and the number of locations hit. Thus far America had done very little in response to the 160-plus attacks on its troops in Syria and Iraq by Iran-backed proxies since the start of the Gaza war on October 7th. But this time it was forced to retaliate because its soldiers had been killed.

Still, the Biden administration has so far ignored calls from Republican lawmakers to hit Iranian territory directly, something America has not done since the 1980s (even then, it attacked only warships and oil platforms in the Persian Gulf). By flying bombers halfway around the world, rather than from an air base in a nearby country, it also deprived Iran of justification to lash out at its neighbours in the Gulf.

Before the strikes the Wall Street Journal reported that Jordanian aircraft were expected to participate. American and Jordanian officials refused to comment on the claim. Jordan has its own problems with Iran-backed militias: they traffic drugs across the border from Syria and use the kingdom as a transit route for smuggling weapons into the occupied West Bank. Last month Jordan’s air force bombed suspected drug-smugglers in southern Syria.

American officials say it is too early to assess the damage from their sorties. They had been telegraphed for almost a week, and it is unlikely that the IRGC left any high-level members at locations that were probable targets. There have been reports that the guards have withdrawn many officers from Syria, where they have been targeted in recent weeks by Israeli attacks.

In a briefing with reporters American officials made no mention of trying to deter Iran: too late for that. Instead they talked of trying to “degrade” its ability to attack American troops through proxies. One social-media video from al-Qaim shows a series of secondary explosions after an American strike, which suggests that it hit an ammunition depot full of ordnance. But it is doubtful that one round of bombing could have done much damage to the military capabilities of a constellation of well-armed militias.

America is trying to do much the same in Yemen, where on February 1st it carried out another round of air strikes against the Houthis, a Shia militia. But despite three weeks of American and British attacks the Houthis are still launching drones and ballistic missiles at commercial vessels in the Red Sea. Trying to stop such groups through air raids can turn into a long game of whack-a-mole.

Three questions loom. The first is when and how America will carry out subsequent attacks, and how Iran and its allies will respond. Iran has long hoped that fighting with American troops in Syria and Iraq would eventually drive them out. There are now signs, however, that the regime is worried that militias could drag it into direct conflict with America. On January 30th Kataib Hizbullah, the strongest Iran-backed group in Iraq, said that it would suspend its attacks against American targets. Yet other factions have vowed to continue their attacks. Militias in Iraq compete with one another for power and popularity. Iran has influence over them, but cannot dictate their every move.

Second is whether the strikes will affect the ongoing diplomacy over a ceasefire and release of hostages in Gaza. Optimists in the administration hope they could lay a path for a new grand bargain in the Middle East that would include the establishment of a Palestinian state, Saudi recognition of Israel and an American defence treaty for Saudi Arabia that could help create a new security architecture in the region. The strikes show America is prepared to use muscle against Iran in some circumstances. But for Israel, Saudi Arabia and others who are threatened by Iran, they fall far short of a coherent long-term strategy to contain the regime in Tehran. And in the short-term, any further escalation in fighting could complicate negotiations.

Third, and most worrisome, is whether any of these back-and-forth attacks will have unintended consequences. The drone that struck the American base in Jordan may have been mistakenly identified as friendly, which meant air defences were not activated and soldiers were not rushed to bunkers. That error has pushed America and Iran one step further into conflict. Neither side may want a war, but wars are messy things.