Understanding the Latest US Strikes in Iraq and Syria

by August 2021
Mock funeral for members of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces killed by US strikes in June. Photo credit: REUTERS/Saba Kareem

A new era defined by the proliferation of drones is upon us. But while dozens of armies have remote-controlled aircraft and even more have other precision weapons, only Iran routinely provides such technologies to foreign nonstate actors and directs their use in other countries and across borders.  

Iran has long commanded its nonstate proxies in Iraq to attack US forces with imprecise rockets; one of those attacks that killed an American sparked the series of events that led to President Trump’s ordering the US killing of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani last year. President Biden maintained the US red line against rocket attacks at American forces when he ordered strikes in Syria in February. More recently, it appears Iran once again has decided to march methodically up the escalation ladder as its local proxies now use precision drones to attack American targets. The Biden administration reportedly considered but did not order a military response in Iraq back in April. With Iranian-backed drone attacks continuing, on June 28, the administration authorized strikes against targets in both Syria and Iraq.  

Iran’s primary strategic objective is to drive the US from the region, either by convincing Washington that the price is too high and prospects for success are too low, or by convincing the regional governments that host American forces to direct the US to leave. Tehran sees Baghdad as being especially vulnerable to the latter strategy, due to its sizable number of pro-Iran political actors and the more widespread anti-American sensibilities that linger from the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation.  

Iran’s primary strategic objective is to drive the US from the region.
A poster of Qassem Soleimani during a symbolic funeral for Iran-backed Iraqi fighters killed by US strikes. Photo credit: REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani

It is encouraging that the Iraqi government does not seem to be taking the Iranian bait thus far. It is certainly understandable that domestic political pressures require the Iraqi government to publicly criticize the US for “violating its sovereignty.” It is even more understandable—indeed quite reasonable—for the Iraqi government to express concern that its territory not become the main theater in a violent US–Iran conflict. It is just as important to recognize that the Iraqi government only issued the statement in writing and not in the voice of any elected official. The Iraqi government also did not deny the US right to defend itself, did not excuse the Iranian-backed attacks on US forces, did not make statements suggesting that the US should depart, and certainly did not echo one of the targeted Iran-backed groups who declared that they will now “go to open war” with the US.  

Indeed, the current Iraqi government, as inherently fragile as it is, has proved itself able to work relatively well with the US on many of the most important matters of mutual interest. Moreover, Baghdad is playing an even more constructive regional role by hosting and facilitating talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran on deescalating tensions. If only those Washington voices who mistakenly continue to advocate for regional withdrawal would be as clearheaded and steadfast in their defense of common US and Iraqi interests. 

But, in the end, debates over the necessity of US airstrikes and the viability of the US military presence are unfortunately debates on Iran’s terms. The fundamental problems with the discussion in Washington about US policies toward Iraq have been sadly consistent at least during the last three administrations. First, there is a general reluctance to talk about Iraq, much less have a vigorous policy debate. Iraq is considered “old news” and a source of frustration rather than an opportunity for aspiring policymakers and politicians. Second, the Washington discussion that remains is not really about the future of Iraq at all; rather, it is about threats from terrorists or Iran—or, most of all, it is about ourselves, a never-ending domestic political contest over which party was right in either 2003 (the invasion), 2007 (the surge), or 2011 (the withdrawal). Iraqis are well aware that questions about their own governance, security, and prosperity do not attract headlines in the US. US policy about Iraq will only be successful when it starts focusing on the future of the Iraqi people—and is seen that way by Iraqi leaders. 

Finally, for those inside the beltway, it was especially notable that the Biden administration cited Article II of the US Constitution as its legal authority for this strike, as it also did back in February, instead of the 2002 authorization of the use of military force in Iraq. This latter legal authority, which today clearly has little relation to its intended scope when it was originally passed, has long been primarily viewed in Washington through a domestic political lens rather than a foreign operational lens. As a result, the Obama administration refused to cite the 2002 authority in 2014 as the Islamic State was on the march in Iraq and bent itself into pretzels trying to find other rationales to use force, even though it was at least arguably applicable in that crisis. And that is also why, with the opposite political intent, the Trump administration made a point to explicitly cite the 2002 authority when discussing the strike on Soleimani. At this point, especially given the over-politicization of this law, it is probably best that the Congress finish the work that it already started, and repeal the 2002 authorization.  

William F. Wechsler
William F. Wechsler is director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council. A former US deputy assistant secretary of defense, he also served as special adviser to the secretary of the treasury and held positions in the National Security Council and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. @WillWechsler
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