Undeclared conflict? America’s fighting with the Iranian-backed militia is escalating again
WASHINGTON, June 29 (Reuters) – The recent attacks by US President Joe Biden against Iran-backed militias in Syria and Iraq were neither the first nor likely the last of his young presidency.
For some of Biden’s Democrats the crucial question is: does the pattern of attacks and counterattacks amount to an undeclared conflict?
If so, there is a risk that the United States, without the involvement of Congress, could find itself in a direct war with Iran, an issue that is becoming more politically tense after two decades of “perpetual wars”.
“Given the pace of attacks on US forces and the increasing frequency of our responses, it’s hard to argue,” Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat who heads a key Senate foreign affairs subcommittee, told Reuters.
“What we always fear is that the United States will slide into war with no real American public intervention.”
The two countries got close to a conflict that Democrats feared in January 2020 when the United States killed a top Iranian general and Iran retaliated with missile strikes in Iraq that caused brain injuries to more than 100 US soldiers. This was followed by a series of talks with Iran-backed militias.
In the final round on Sunday, U.S. fighter jets targeted operational and weapons caches at two locations in Syria and one in Iraq in a direct response to drone strikes by militias on U.S. personnel and facilities in Iraq, according to the Pentagon.
On Monday, US troops in Syria came under rocket fire in apparent retaliation, but remained injured. The US military responded with artillery fire from the counter battery at missile launch positions.
“A lot of people think that the term ‘Eternal War’ is only emotional, but actually it’s a decent description of the kind of strike we saw again (Sunday): no strategic goal, no end point in sight, just permanent presence and tit-for-tat strikes, “said Emma Ashford, an Atlantic Council scholar, on Twitter.
SALAMI SLICE APPROACH
The White House has stressed that Sunday’s air strikes were designed to limit escalation and deter future militia operations against US personnel.
They were also legal, according to Biden.
“I have this Article 2 authority and even those on the hill who are reluctant to acknowledge that it is,” Biden said, referring to part of the US Constitution that establishes the powers of the president as commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
Brian Finucane, a former official in the State Department’s office of legal advisor, said the current administration, like others before, does not see the episodes as part of an ongoing conflict.
He called it a “salami slice” approach.
“You would call this temporary hostilities. We had a hit in February and then the war forces’ 60-day clock was essentially reset,” said Finucane, now with the International Crisis Group.
He drew a comparison to the tanker wars with Iran in the 1980s, when the Reagan administration viewed “each round of combat as a kind of closed event.”
However, experts say that view fails to take into account that the Iran-backed militia is waging an ongoing – and escalating – campaign against the US military presence in Iraq.
Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy warned that the use of drones by the militia seems increasingly dangerous as they use GPS guidance and precisely target US-led coalition intelligence agencies, surveillance and reconnaissance systems, and missile defense.
“Attacks by Iraqi militias on coalition presence points in Iraq are increasing in quantity and quality. If deterrence is not restored, US deaths are becoming more likely,” said Knights.
In addition to driving the United States out of the region, the militia’s secondary goal is to signal the United States, the Iraqi government and others that they have command of more advanced weapons like the explosive-laden drones, said Phillip Smyth, also at the Washington at Institute for Middle East Policy.
“They live off some of their covert actions,” he said.
Members of Congress are currently working to revoke some of the war permits used by presidents of both parties to justify previous attacks in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.
But that wouldn’t necessarily prevent Biden or any other US president from launching defensive air strikes.
After being briefed by Biden’s national security team, Murphy said he was still concerned. US troops were in Iraq to fight the Islamic State, not an Iranian allied militia.
If Biden is suspicious of going to the War Forces Congress, then maybe he needs to heed Americans’ skepticism about intervention in the Middle East, he said.
“If Congress had a hard time approving military action against Iran-backed militias, it would be mainly because our constituents don’t want it. And that is missing from this debate,” he said.
Reporting by Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali; additional reporting by Jonathan Landay and Patricia Zengerle; Adaptation by Mary Milliken and Sonya Hepinstall
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