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. 

John Kirby was once again fed to the press. This time he confirmed that two Air Force F-15Es launched a salvo of missiles which destroyed nine facilities believed by U.S. intelligence to be “entry control points” used by Iranian-backed militia groups active in Iraq. 

The message from POTUS was curt. “You can’t act with impunity. Be careful,” he warned Iran in a press briefing.

But the strike offered more than a message to our enemies. It peeled back the husk of the regional conflict in a way that many missed; Iranian-backed militia members struck U.S. assets in Iraq and killed an American civilian. We retaliate by striking Iranian assets in Syria. 

Iran attacks, Syria, Iraq, SOFREP
Map of the U.S. strike in Syria and the most recent attacks by Iranian-backed militias.

If the U.S. strike was a warranted move on Biden’s part — which he and his cabinet are now having to defend to Congress — it raises a question about the conflict in which we are engaged, and just who we are engaged with. It’s clear that Iran and its proxies are proliferated from the Iranian border across Northern Iraq and into Easter Syria. It’s further clear that the borders of these nations are porous and conducive to the movements of these militias. It’s also clear that we know who’s pulling the strings.

So why hide it? 

It’s perhaps poetic that we commemorated the planting of the flag on Mount Suribachi this week. The moment, now an icon of American perseverance and determination during the bloody battles of the Pacific theater in WWII, has become a part of our cultural self. It reminds us that we fight until the fighting is done, that we overcome and that when the dust settles, Old Glory will be waving proudly. 

Or at least that’s how it used to be. 

The world has changed since then. Our enemies aren’t wearing uniforms or bearing allegiance to a fürher. Iran, and other antagonists of our interests, has influence scattered across several countries, tapping into a shadow network of resources fueled by illicit black markets, weapons smuggling and backroom deals. Those that would see us fail are colluding knowingly, yet we seem to have neither the stomach nor the strategy to eliminate them. 

I am no hawk, and I am not in favor of spending more good tax-payer money after bad. The last thing we need is another war, this time in Iran. But I do know that we used to know who our enemies were, and were once able to do more than warn them by blowing up a handful of crummy buildings. 

The most frustrating part is that we’ve played into the hands of Iran.

By striking Syria in retaliation for attacks in Iraq, we are tacitly acknowledging the regional nature of the conflict we are in and how unstable the region actually is. To make matters worse, we’ve fetishized our politics to the point where every move — diplomatic or military — is some kind of self-righteous justification for why we deserve the freedom we’ve fought so hard to carve out and protect. Our enemies can slither through the murky places of the globe with impunity while we’re busy pleasuring ourselves on party politics. 

I think that the men on that mountain top in Iwo Jima would be ashamed. So should we. And that, my friends, is how our enemies win. 

What’s in store for next week? None of us knows. But, as always, we’ll be here to bring you the stories you won’t find anywhere else with insights and analysis from people who have actually been there. 

In the meantime,

Stay frosty

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