Army Gen. Michael Erik Kurilla, who took over as head of US Central Command this spring, met in late June with dozens of the about 300 foreign soldiers, special operations forces and trainees stationed in this sprawling base in eastern Syria. The high-level visit came just days after Russian fighter jets offensive a battle station operated by Syrian opposition fighters inside the garrison. Russian military officials, citing an alleged vehicle explosion which they said injured Syrian government troops, informed the Americans of their intention 35 minutes prior, according to a US military official.
The Biden administration is presiding over a unique moment, as familiar threats like those posed by Iran and its proxies have, in a way, been overshadowed by Russia’s aggressive posturing toward Europe and the quest for regional dominance. of China in the Pacific. As the US government seeks to redefine its priorities, key Middle Eastern allies – including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel – are increasingly impatient, aware that the attention and capital of Washington’s war are drawn elsewhere.
It has given new urgency to a classic strategic challenge: how much harassment is the United States prepared to tolerate, and how can it deter adversaries from testing Washington’s red lines?
“The biggest question for American policymakers to wrestle with is that at some point, the Emiratis, the Saudis, the Israelis and other allies in the Middle East, if they don’t believe that the United States are going to deter Iran on their own, they’ll be looking for ways to deter Iran on their own,” said Raphael S. Cohen, who studies military strategy and doctrine at the RAND Corporation.
Ukraine has opened the gap between the United States and the Persian Gulf countries
No American personnel were injured in the Russian strike on Tanf. But that was no consolation for Kurilla, who characterized the incident as part of a broader bid by US adversaries to assert dominance in the region while betting the US won’t mount a response. kinetic.
“They’re going to push until they think our limits are going to be and then re-establish our red lines,” Kurilla told those gathered in the blazing desert sun.
“We are ready to let go whenever the time comes,” exclaimed an American serviceman.
Kurilla cracked a smile. “I don’t doubt it,” replied the general.
June saw multiple examples of what US military officials called “provocative”, “escalating” or “dangerous and unprofessional” acts. by Russia and Iran.
In addition to the strike here in Tanf, U.S. officials said they documented Russian aircraft threatening U.S. military aircraft over Syria with maneuvers that failed to adhere to long-established deconfliction protocols requiring both sides to agree, and not do not merely warn each other of planned operations that could endanger either country’s personnel or interests. Central Command declined to provide further details to back up its claims.
US and Iranian military ships nearly miss in the Persian Gulf
The contact with Russia coincided with a escalating provocations by Iran and its proxies, including a recent near-miss at sea when fast attack boats operated by Tehran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps snuck into US vessels in the Persian Gulf, coming within 50 yards of one. Earlier this year, the Pentagon rushed in response to attacks, orchestrated by Iran-affiliated rebels in Yemen, targeting US and Emirati troops at a base south of Abu Dhabi.
Iran, the United States’ most formidable rival in the Middle East, has long been a concern of CENTCOM commanders. Kurille, who spent much of the spring travel throughout the region and meet foreign counterparts, is fixed on the aggressive activity Tehran got away with it and often refers to a recent NBC News analysis which has counted 29 attacks on US targets since October that have not elicited a forceful response.
US working to expand intelligence networks in Central Asia
The Tanf garrison, located along Syria’s borders with Jordan and Iraq, still bears the scars of an Iranian militia attack in October. The marks from where the drones hit the complex can be seen on a building near the US Army Command Center, where a whiteboard records recent incidents in the 35-mile deconfliction zone surrounding it. A a floor-to-ceiling map of the area shows exactly which parts of the territory these threats have made vulnerable.
The US military has enough firepower here to repel an attack, officials say: there are armored vehicles and two high-mobility artillery rocket systems with the range to hit anything encroaching on the area of deconfliction. But for the most part, as with US assets elsewhere in the region, they sit idle because the perceived dangers of a forceful response are deemed too high.
“The last thing we want to do is start a conflict with Russia right now,” Kurilla told garrison troops. But, he added, “we will defend ourselves… We will not hesitate to react”.
Russia’s aggressive actions against the United States have only complicated a balancing act in the Middle East that in recent years has dictated how the US military handles its interests.
“Iran routinely tries to test where American red lines might be and walks to that,” said William Wechsler, director of Middle East programs at the Atlantic Council and a former senior Pentagon official. “They’re trying to establish an accepted set of behaviors that work to their advantage…and we have, indeed, broadly accepted those malignant standards of behavior over multiple administrations.”
“For redlines to work, one of two dynamics needs to be in effect. The first is that we understand our own redlines with great specificity internally and communicate them very clearly externally,” said Wechsler: “The second way is if you have an overwhelming degree of power, then you can have a degree of strategic ambiguity. But I fear those days are behind the United States… Fear of American power has faded over the past 20 years.
In the Middle East, in particular, the United States is reducing its activities after decades of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. It creates opportunities for opponents to flex, experts say, and shows they are a force to be reckoned with.
As war in Ukraine bogs down, US assessments come under scrutiny
In the case of Russia, the obvious factor in the tensions with the United States is the war in Ukraine. The Kremlin is furious at the US-led effort to coerce Moscow and arm Kyiv – and its leaders, analysts say, fear losing their influence elsewhere in the world. Kurilla attributed Russia’s heightened bravado in Syria to Colonel-General Aleksandr Chayko, who returned to the Middle East after a delay in his term as head Russian forces in Ukraine.
“What we don’t know is if it’s an off-leash dog trying to recover?” Kurilla told American troops at Tanf. “What is the reason for some of this more aggressive behavior? »
There are also questions about what is motivating the escalation of Iranian-backed attacks. Generally, they coincide with the long, slow failure of efforts to revive an international pact to limit Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. The incident in the Persian Gulf also follows closely the imposition by the United States of new sanctions against Iranian petrochemical producers and reciprocal incidents between Greece and Iran involving the seizure of tankers.
Iran nuclear talks resume this week
But there is another element at play: changing the signals from Washington. The Biden administration has shown no leniency towards Russia married by his predecessor, nor the unyieldingly hard line on Iran. Unlike President Donald Trump, Biden has taken a defiant stance toward Moscow while placing greater emphasis on diplomacy with Tehran, though the administration insists it is not letting provocations go unanswered.
“There is nothing President Biden takes more seriously than the safety of American personnel deployed overseas,” a National Security Council spokesperson said, speaking on condition of anonymity in accordance with ground rules established by the White House.
This person said that upon taking office, the Biden administration moved quickly to deter attacks by Iran-backed groups, deploying a variety of tools, including military strikes, as well as diplomatic and coercive measures.
“Not all responses will be seen or visible, but Iran fully understands that the United States stands ready to respond directly to any threats against American personnel,” the spokesperson continued.
Although US government officials are coy about what would trigger a military response, there is consensus among experts that a clear red line for the United States is the killing of an American citizen.
“The deaths of Americans demand a response. The destruction of American interests or American partners and allies is a question mark,” said Matthew McInnis, senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of War.
“That’s exactly where the American people are right now.”