On Sunday, January 28, The Islamic Resistance in Iraq, an umbrella group that includes the militias Kataib Hezbollah and Harakat al-Nujaba among others, claimed responsibility for a drone attack that killed three US military personnel and injured 34 others in a base in northeastern Jordan, near the Syria border.
In the media coverage of the attack, it was repeatedly mentioned that these militias have launched 165 attacks on US troops – 66 in Iraq and 98 in Syria – since October 2023. While it helps put the attack in context, this is a misleading figure. This conflict began much earlier than last October, and thus the total number of attacks the US has faced from these militias is actually much higher.
Indeed, Sunday’s drone attack was just the latest episode in an undeclared war between the United States and Iran-affiliated Iraqi Shia militias that has been raging across the region for more than five years.
More than six years ago, in October 2017, in an article published on this very page, I predicted that US President Donald Trump’s controversial decision to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or the “Iran nuclear deal”, would result in attacks by Iran-backed Iraqi militias on US forces in Iraq and across the region.
The attacks began soon after the US withdrawal, and overtime settled into a pattern of carefully managed tit-for-tat skirmishes. The superiority of US defence systems, coupled with its state-of-the-art drone arsenal, meant that the few casualties of the low-intensity conflict have consistently been on the Iraqi side. Most of the projectiles fired by the militias, both missiles and drones, were easily intercepted and destroyed by US forces.
It was clear that the point of these attacks was to harass American forces, not cause a high number of fatalities. In fact, these militias most likely did not think their weapons could ever evade the American antiaircraft defences and cause American casualties.
In December 2019, however, a Kataib Hezbollah attack on an Iraqi military facility resulted in the death of an American-citizen working as a translator for the US military.
That single casualty ended up triggering the most tense episode in the conflict so far. Trump retaliated in January 2020 by assassinating the militia’s leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, as well as the head of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force, General Qassem Soleimani, causing fears that World War III was about to break out.
Now, there are not one, but three US casualties, and given the ever-intensifying confrontations between US and Iran-backed militias across the region, once again there are growing fears that the US may respond to the attack on its forces in Jordan in a way that would spiral the longrunning conflict out of control.
Sure, Joe Biden is not Trump, and he is expected to be more cautious in his response than his predecessor. But 2024 is an election year, and the Biden administration is facing immense domestic pressures. No matter what Biden decides to do, it will not be enough to satisfy the Republicans who are already calling for Iran to be directly targeted, and even Tehran to be bombed.
Trump, who will likely be running against Biden in November, already blamed Sunday’s deadly drone attack in Jordan on Biden’s “weakness and surrender”.
“This attack would NEVER have happened if I was President, not even a chance,” he wrote in a social media post on Sunday. “Just like the Iranian-backed Hamas attack on Israel would never have happened, the War in Ukraine would never have happened, and we would right now have Peace throughout the World. Instead, we are on the brink of World War 3.”
Faced with such provocation, President Biden may feel the need to take drastic action to not appear weak on the eve of a critical election.
Iran, for its part, appears more than eager to avoid being pulled into hot conflict against the US at a time when its so-called “Axis of Resistance” is actually on the rise in the region. Indeed, Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israel, and Israel’s consequent assault on Gaza, resurrected and strengthened the Iran-led anti-US alliance between Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, and the Harakat and Hezbollah in Iraq. Further, Houthis demonstrated that they can disrupt Red Sea shipping, and thus international trade, without much consequence for themselves, adding to Iran’s perceived power on the world stage.
The Iraqi militias, just like the Houthis, are likely enjoying the fact that they managed to humiliate Washington by killing US servicemen in Jordan, and hoping that their unexpected success would elevate their status within the Axis. Iran, however, appears to have a much different assessment of the situation.
The Islamic republic has long been discouraging its proxies from taking action that could transform its carefully managed low-intensity, low-fatality proxy conflict into a costly all-out direct war against the US. It, for example, has not pushed the Lebanese Hezbollah to enter into a high-intensity conflict with Israel amid its war on Gaza. Thus, there is reason to assume Iran is actually not that pleased with the “success” of the attack on the base in Jordan, and is hoping to avoid any further escalations.
Today, in the Middle East, there is a very real risk of a major escalation in the proxy war between Iran and the US that could prove extremely costly for a region that is already reeling from multiple hot conflicts and crises. This threat of escalation, however, is not coming from Iran, or its proxies that have been hitting US targets with little success for years. The threat of escalation is coming from the US administration, which could throw the entire region into fire by overreacting to a drone attack that got “lucky” due to domestic pressures.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.