At the direction of U.S. President Joe Biden, the American military carried out airstrikes on a site in eastern Syria used by Iranian-backed militia groups on Feb. 25, killing 17 militants. Just one month into his presidency, why did Biden, who appeared to be a gentle and cultivated man, decide to order military attacks in Syria to showcase U.S. global leadership?
First, the airstrikes were intended to demonstrate that America is back and that it stands ready to return to the peak of its global power. Since Biden’s inauguration and the advent of a new administration, he and Secretary of State Tony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III have claimed on numerous bilateral and multilateral occasions that the United States is back, returning to multilateralism and the U.N. system, to its role in NATO and to healthy relations with European allies. But this return can’t be interpreted simply as the United States rejoining its allies; rather, it amounts to a reaffirmation of its global leadership.
To enhance U.S. prestige in NATO countries and with its allies in Europe and the Middle East, Biden needed to do something big as proof of America’s commitment to global leadership. In fact, the airstrikes took place just after a series of meetings between the United States and its European allies — at the G7 Summit, the Munich Security Conference and with of NATO ministers of defense — all of which were designed to enhance internal solidarity. This fact shows that the extraordinary airstrikes were carried out by the Biden administration after consulting with the Europeans.
Second, it’s clear the airstrikes targeted Iran and Russia, even though the attack site was in Syria. The United States justified the airstrikes as a response to a mid-February rocket attack on U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq. That attack was said to be launched by an Iranian-backed militia group and resulted in casualties.
In fact, however, the airstrikes were carried out as the investigation into the rocket attack was still underway. Why? Iran has been moving to close the window of opportunity for the United States to return to the Iran nuclear deal.
In 2018, the Trump administration withdrew from the nuclear deal signed in 2015 under his predecessor, Barack Obama, and imposed comprehensive sanctions on Iran, ranging from a financial blockade to bans on oil exports. The following year, Iran adopted the salami-slice strategy of bypassing the deal’s restrictions on uranium enrichment and the number of centrifuges, among other things.
Biden’s victory in the presidential election in late 2020 raised high hopes in Iran that the U.S. might return to the nuclear deal. Iran is urging Washington to act faster to return to the nuclear accord by attempting to add pressure. In December, the Iranian parliament, which is dominated by hardliners, passed legislation that set a two-month deadline for the easing of sanctions.
“Time is running out for the Americans, both because of the parliament bill and the election atmosphere that will follow the Iranian New Year,” said Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in an interview in early February this year.
The Biden administration is aware of its European allies’ commitment to the Iranian nuclear deal, which came as a result of multilateral diplomacy, and has the intention to reverse Donald Trump’s “mistake” of pulling out of the deal. But it doesn’t like Iran’s policy of high pressure, stressing that Iran should first and foremost restrict its nuclear program.
On the other hand, Iran has asked the United States to lift sanctions first, claiming there is no room for negotiation over the text of the original deal. Obviously, the United States — a country used to giving orders and exercising what it sees as leadership on the world stage — finds it impossible to tolerate Iran’s tough stance. And with its airstrikes in Syria targeting Iranian-backed militia groups, Washington is sending a message to Tehran: Enough is enough.
At the same time, the strikes also targeted at Russia, an important source of support for Syria. Biden has been playing up the so-called threats posed by Russia and China since taking office, as he did during the campaign. To enhance solidarity with its allies and reenergize NATO, it is necessary to find a common enemy, and “the Russia threat” fits the bill. Compared with Ukraine and other close neighbors of both Russia and European countries, it is less costly and risky to launch military attacks in Syria as a warning to Russia.
The airstrikes meant that the United States doesn’t take the Syrian government or Russia seriously. Rather, it believes it can launch attacks whenever it wants, without giving a notice or a warning to either country beforehand.
The strikes exemplify the U.S. intention to reassert its influence in the Middle East and its refusal to stand idly by as Russian President Vladimir Putin expands his influence in Syria and the wider region. Washington sees the Middle East as its traditional sphere of influence and wants no other dominant actors in the region.