This week was bookended by deadly strikes in the Middle East. At the top of the order was a duo of strikes carried out in Iraq at the hands of local Iranian-backed militia groups. The first struck an airbase in Balad, north of Baghdad. The second, a barrage aimed at Baghdad’s Green Zone

The drumbeat of deadly attacks across Iraq has become consistent. Seemingly weekly, SOFREP reports on an attack; three dead here, scores more there. In the constancy of the reports and the attacks themselves, it’s easy to miss the bigger picture of what these attacks are intended to accomplish. Yes, they are aimed at killing people and destroying valuable infrastructure. But they are also part of a longer-view PSYOP carried out by Iran and its proxies. By striking U.S. and coalition assets regularly, these insurgents accomplish several key things. 

First, they remind the coalition that they can and will unleash deadly strikes at any time. These are retaliatory or symbolic. The second thing they do is set a high bar for protective posture. Want to go into the Green Zone? Better wear your flak vest and helmet. Want to get in or out? Prepare to be stopped, screened, checked and rechecked. In other words, these attacks keep Iraq a militarized zone, and sustain the social and political pressure that comes with maintaining it.  

Then came the State Department’s spokesperson Ned Price, tip-toeing his way through a tightly packaged comment on the attacks and whether the United States would respond in some way.

“When it comes to our response, we will respond in a way that’s calculated, within our own timetable, and using a mix of tools at a time and place of our choosing, as you’ve heard me say before. What we will not do is lash out and risk an escalation that plays into the hands of Iran and contributes to their attempts to further destabilize Iraq,” he said.

John Kirby, the spokesperson for the Pentagon, also weighed in saying that the DoD’s view on Tehran’s activities is “perfectly clear,” yet struggled to find firm footing when asked if the killing of Americans, and striking the Embassy — which is technically American soil — would be enough to elicit a military response. 

“It’s difficult to say with certainty,” Kirby said to reporters, “whether there’s a strategic calculation driving this recent uptick in attacks, or whether this is just a continuation of the sorts of attacks we’ve seen in the past.” 

Then on Friday, POTUS ordered a strike inside Syria, the first military action since his taking office. According to reports, the airstrike targeted structures in the eastern Syrian town of Al Bukamal, a village near the border with Iraq in the Euphrates River valley.