Biden's airstrikes in the Middle East are a far cry from the diplomacy he promised


  • The US carried out an airstrike in eastern Syria on February 25 in response to recent attacks.
  • Instead of aiding talks with Iran, the military action threatens to complicate the precarious situation in the region.
  • American voters must demand better from the Biden administration than continued US war-making in the Middle East.
  • Marianne Dhenin is a freelance writer covering social justice, politics, and the Middle East. 
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author. 
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

"Diplomacy is back!" declared President Joe Biden at the Munich Security Conference on February 4. Three weeks later, a pair of American F-15 fighter jets were dropping bombs on Syria — so much for diplomacy.

According to Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby, the February 25 strike, which targeted facilities in eastern Syria used by Iran-backed Iraqi militias, was "authorized in response to recent attacks against American and Coalition personnel in Iraq, and to ongoing threats to those personnel." The attack was ordered without Congressional authorization and came only ten days after a February 15 rocket attack in northern Iraq killed a civilian contractor and injured a US service member and other Coalition personnel. According to a medical source at a local hospital who spoke to Reuters, the recent US strike killed at least seventeen people. 

Analysts suggest the February 25 strike was intended to strengthen the US's position in negotiations with Iran over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or the Iran Nuclear Deal, which the US withdrew from under President Donald Trump. Biden has promised to re-enter the accord. 

But the strike threatens to kick off a dangerous back-and-forth. It's bad news for negotiations with Iran and a far cry from the diplomatic approach that Biden promised.

Sabatoging Iran talks before they even get started

Following the strike, Kirby also claimed that it was meant to "de-escalate the overall situation in both eastern Syria and Iraq." But it will come as no surprise that the Syrian government thought the opposite in the wake of the surprise attack on its soil. 

On February 26, the Syrian Foreign Ministry released a statement calling the action a violation of international law and claiming that it "will lead to consequences that will escalate the situation in the region." Russia, one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's foremost allies, said it was given only minutes' notice before the strikes. A spokesperson for the nation's federation council warned that continued similar actions in the region could lead to "a massive conflict." 

A yet-unclaimed March 3 missile attack on the Ain al-Asad airbase in western Iraq tracks with the Syrian and Russian evaluations of the situation. The airbase is one of the few Iraqi bases where US troops remain stationed. According to a Pentagon press release, no US service members were injured in the attack, however, a US civilian contractor died after suffering a cardiac episode while sheltering. 

It remains an open question whether Biden will again respond with force. When asked about the prospect of a military response in a press briefing, Kirby told reporters that "If we determine a response is necessary, we will do so at a time and manner of our choosing." 

What is sure is that continued military escalation in the region is counterproductive. If the Biden administration hopes to revive the JCPOA, it should instead be focused on reducing tensions and facilitating the best possible atmosphere for negotiations with Iran. Biden should know that. He should understand the danger of making sudden decisions in the region. After all, he criticized Trump's "erratic, impulsive decisions" while on the campaign trail and advocated for a more measured approach. 

Not the diplomacy Americans want

Responses to the strike among US politicians varied. Some key members of the Republican party welcomed the attack. GOP Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, tweeted that the strike was "targeted, proportional and necessary." GOP Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the House of Representatives' foreign affairs committee, characterized it as a reminder to "Iran, its proxies, and [US] adversaries around the world that attacks on US interests will not be tolerated." 

Some Democrats also praised the action, including House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland, who called it "a strong act" sure to "send a message to Tehran."

Others were wiser. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, and Rep. Ro Khanna of California condemned the strikes. Khanna tweeted, "We cannot stand up for Congressional authorization before military strikes only when there is a Republican President… We need to work to extricate from the Middle East, not escalate." 

Khanna is right in pointing out that when Trump ordered strikes without first consulting Congress, Democrats — some of them now members of the Biden administration — were quick to protest. Notably, Jen Psaki, current White House press secretary, questioned Trump's authority to order airstrikes without Congressional approval back in 2017, tweeting, "What is the legal authority for strikes? Assad is a brutal dictator. But Syria is a sovereign country." 

Americans should be asking the same question today. We should also be asking whether maintaining US troops in the Middle East really makes Americans safer. Or does it only distract from other foreign policy priorities? 

Thus far, Biden's actions in the Middle East have neglected the desires of his foreign partners, undermined the interests of US personnel stationed in the region, and disregarded the opinion of most Americans — 73% of whom believe that good diplomacy is the best way to ensure peace.

Far from having brought diplomacy back, Biden has resorted to aggressive use of force in record speed (in contrast, it took Trump four months to order his first airstrikes). He is now poised to sabotage what could be his only chance to revive the nuclear deal that his National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan claimed is a "critical early priority" for his administration. 

The 81 million Americans who backed Biden's commitment to diplomacy in the general election must hold him to account for the recent strike on Syria and his failure to engage sincerely with Iran. A Democrat in the White House must not mean the president has a free pass to forge ahead with US war-making and destabilization in the Middle East. 



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