Edited by Sam Thielman
IT'S JUST AN AMMO DEPOT. It's just a weapons storage facility. It didn't kill anybody. The Iranians understand the difference between striking this and, say, assassinating Qassem Soleimani.
All of these are true statements about the U.S. F-16 strikes on Thursday on positions near Boukamal/Abu Kamal, in Syria, operated by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as well as their Syrian proxy forces. The airstrikes are the wartime equivalent of saying that you're just going to have one drink and then go right home.
Thursday was a significant day for escalation in the Middle East war that began on October 7. Israeli armor conducted a reportedly brief incursion into the northern Gaza Strip, its first in the current war, and one the Israelis portrayed as battlefield preparation. A video the IDF released shows an Israeli armored column bulldozing a pathway from the border to the outskirts of an unidentified Gazan town and opening fire before returning to Israel. The IDF followed up Friday with a second raid, this one in the eastern part of Gaza City. This second operation employed infantry and combat engineering units as well as armor, with air cover overhead, as is typical. If you want a sense of what is coming, Israel is now claiming Gaza hospitals aren't actually hospitals, but secret Hamas command centers.
But the statement Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin put out following the airstrikes, which are the opening overtures of U.S. air power in this war, portrayed the U.S. and Israeli operations as entirely unrelated. "[The U.S. airstrikes] are separate and distinct from the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, and do not constitute a shift in our approach to the Israel-Hamas conflict," Austin claimed. (The first strikes demonstrating U.S. sea power in the current war came last week in the Red Sea, from the destroyer USS Carney.)
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They are obviously not "separate and distinct." For the past week-plus, we've seen a concerted rise in Iranian-sponsored strikes on U.S. positions in Syria, Iraq, the Red Sea and elsewhere, including threats to U.S. forces in Kuwait. That escalation in exchanges happened entirely because of Israel's U.S.-backed siege and bombing of Gaza. They are messages about the Gaza war: to impose costs on the one foreign power that has the ability to constrain Israel. Any U.S. response to them is inevitably another message about the Gaza War.
The reason Austin issued that absurdity is because the broader message in his statement is that the U.S. doesn't want a wider war, so he needs to de-link the U.S. military from the IDF. "The United States does not seek conflict and has no intention nor desire to engage in further hostilities," Austin said, reiterating it throughout three short paragraphs. The targets the Pentagon chose—see above—back up that message. U.S. military planners will have chosen those targets for their consistency with exchanges of fire that did not prompt substantial Iranian escalation.
The problem with that military logic is that the context surrounding these exchanges has entirely transformed. Maybe in the spring, low-intensity lobs against Iranian-used military depots followed established unwritten rules in eastern Syria without significant risk of escalation. But yesterday's price is not today's price, and today's price is set by the war in Gaza. Israel is bombing and starving Gaza at a pace that is stunning the region and the non-western world. It is about to invade Gaza in some form, and internal divisions in Israel are making it clear that the war's aims are vague and improvised. The Netanyahu government, sounding like the Bush administration, has signaled a "long war." Remember that Israel has already killed 7,000 Palestinians in only 20 days. Every day the war lasts brings escalatory pressure on Hamas, its Iranian patron and Iran's client forces, including pressure from a militant coalition styling itself the Islamic Resistance in Iraq.
Declaring that the U.S. is not an Israeli co-belligerent does nothing to resolve this tension. Hamas, Iran—and indeed elements that are neither sympathetic to Hamas nor Iran—can see U.S. material support for the Israel Defense Forces, from aircraft-carrier deployments at the high end down to ammunition shipments at the low end. Something like 900 additional U.S. forces will accompany the arrival of a THAAD missile-defense battery in Saudi Arabia and Patriot anti-missile systems elsewhere in the Mideast. U.S. warplanners recognize this when they're on the receiving end of adversary materiel support! I vividly remember how U.S. officers in Iraq during the occupation considered the arrival of shape-charged improvised explosive devices to Shia militias an act of Iranian involvement in the war. That's how we look relative to Israel—except unlike Iran in Iraq, the U.S. isn't trying to conceal its involvement.
Iranian responses appear to be starting already: "The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, said six rockets hit al-Omar oil field in the eastern province of Deir Az Zour,” according to al-Jazeera. “The Observatory said it wasn’t clear if there were any casualties."
As the Biden administration travels this path, the U.S. will find itself in a position where it either declines to respond to a provocation and thereby risks more; where it strikes the same sort of ammo-and-staging targets that did not reestablish deterrence, on the judgment that escalation is riskier; or whether it escalates to different targets—like perhaps this militant coalition in Iraq—and thereby risk angering Iraqis with more U.S. attacks on their soil. Does this path sound worth traveling?
There actually is a surefire way to stop the escalation. It is for the Biden administration to reverse course and back a ceasefire. It isn't too late. There is hope being reported this morning by al-Jazeera, as apparently Qatar is mediating talks between Israel and Hamas for a ceasefire and hostage exchange. There is still time to step back from the brink. But the U.S., to say nothing of Israel, will have to choose to take that step.
INCREDIBLE DETAIL from this Patrick Kingsley/Ronen Bergman piece on the divisions within the Israeli war cabinet and between Netanyahu and the military:
The mutual suspicion between the military and the prime minister runs so deep that civil servants have barred the military from bringing recording equipment into cabinet meetings, according to two people present. They interpreted the move as an attempt to limit the amount of evidence that could be presented to a national inquiry after the war.