US braces for retaliation after attack on Iran consulate — even as it says it wasn’t involved

WASHINGTON — Shortly after an airstrike widely blamed on Israel destroyed an Iranian consulate building in Syria, the United States had an urgent message for Iran: We had nothing to do with it.

But that may not be enough for the US to avoid retaliation against its forces in the region. A top American commander warned on Wednesday of danger to American troops.

And if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent expansion of targeted attacks on adversaries in the region, including Iranian security operatives and leaders, deepens regional hostilities, analysts say, it is not clear that the United States can also prevent them from entering a be drawn into deeper regional conflict.

The Biden administration insists it had no prior knowledge of Monday’s airstrike. But regardless, the United States is closely allied with the Israeli military. The US remains Israel’s indispensable ally and continuous arms supplier, responsible for some 70% of Israel’s arms imports and an estimated 15% of Israel’s defense budget. That includes supplying the kind of advanced aircraft and munitions that appear to have been used in the attack.

Israel has not acknowledged a role in the airstrike, but Pentagon spokeswoman Sabrina Singh said Tuesday that the US has determined that Israel is responsible.

Multiple branches of the Iranian government said they would hold the United States responsible for the fiery attack. The attack in the Syrian capital Damascus killed, among others, senior commanders of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps for Syria and Lebanon and an officer of the powerful Iran-allied Hezbollah militia in Lebanon.

U.S. forces in Syria and Iraq are already frequent targets as Iran and its regional allies seek retaliation for attacks by Israelis, notes Charles Lister, Syria program director at the Middle East Institute.

“What the Iranians have always done for years when they felt most aggressively attacked by Israel is not to hit back at Israelis, but at Americans,” Lister said, viewing them as soft targets in the region.

On Wednesday, the US Air Force’s top commander for the Middle East, Lt. Gen. Alexus Grynkewich, said in Washington on Wednesday that Iran’s assertion that the US bears responsibility for Israeli actions could end a lull in the militia attacks on American troops that have been going on for some time. since early February.

He said he sees no specific threat to U.S. forces at this time, but “I am concerned because of the Iranian rhetoric about the U.S., that there could be a risk to our forces.”

U.S. officials have recorded more than 150 attacks by Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria on U.S. troops at bases in those countries since the war between Hamas and Israel began on Oct. 7.

One, in late January, killed three U.S. service members and injured dozens of others at a base in Jordan.

In retaliation, the US launched a massive airstrike, hitting more than 85 targets in seven locations in Iraq and Syria, including command and control headquarters, drone and ammunition warehouses, and other facilities linked to the militias or the Quds Force IRGC, the Guard. expeditionary unit dealing with Tehran’s relations with and arming of regional militias. Since that response, there have been no publicly reported attacks on U.S. forces in the region.

Grynkewich told reporters that the US is watching and listening carefully to what Iran says and does to evaluate how Tehran might respond.

Analysts and diplomats list a range of ways Iran could retaliate.

Since October 7, Iran and the regional militias associated with it in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen have been pursuing a strategy of calibrated attacks that have failed to provoke a full-scale conflict that could subject the forces of the Iranian homeland or Hezbollah to outright attacks. war with Israel or the United States.

In addition to attacks on U.S. forces, options for Iranian retaliation could include a limited missile strike directly from Iranian territory into Israel, Lister said. That would be in return for Israel’s attack on what was sovereign Iranian territory under international law, on the Iranian diplomatic building in Damascus.

A concentrated attack on a U.S. position abroad on the scale of the 1983 attack on the U.S. embassy in Beirut is possible, but seems unlikely given the scale of U.S. retaliation it would trigger, analysts say. Iran could also escalate an existing effort to kill Trump-era officials behind the 2020 US drone killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani.

How far any other retaliation and potential escalation goes may depend on two things beyond the U.S. control: whether Iran wants to keep regional hostilities at current levels or escalate them, and whether Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s far-right government does so .

Sina Toossi, a fellow at the Center for International Policy, said analysts in Iran are among those trying to read Netanyahu’s mind since the attack and struggling to choose between two competing narratives for Israel’s objective.

“Israel’s actions are seen as a deliberate provocation of a war to which Iran must respond with restraint,” Toossi wrote in the US-based think tank’s magazine. “The other suggests that Israel is capitalizing on Iran’s typically restrained responses,” and that failure to respond in kind will only embolden Israel.

Ultimately, Iran’s sense that it is already achieving its strategic goals while the war between Hamas and Israel rages on—elevating the Palestinian cause and costing Israel friends worldwide—may go furthest in convincing Iran’s leaders in what response therefore not to risk open war with Israel or the US. they are taking advantage of Monday’s airstrike, some analysts and diplomats say.

Shira Efron, director of policy research at the US-based Israel Policy Forum, rejected the suggestion that Netanyahu was actively trying to draw the US into a potentially decisive conflict alongside Israel against their common rivals with attacks like the one in Damascus, at least for now.

“First, the risk of escalation has increased. No doubt about it,” Efron said.

“However, I don’t think Netanyahu is interested in an outright war,” she said. “And while it has been thought in the past that Israel would be interested in involving the US in a larger conflict, even though the desire still exists in some quarters, at this point it is little more than wishful thinking.”

US President Joe Biden is facing pressure from the other direction.

So far, he has resisted calls from a growing number of Democratic lawmakers and voters to limit the flow of US weapons into Israel as a way to pressure Netanyahu to facilitate and comply with Israeli military killings of civilians in Gaza to other US calls.

As criticism of US military support for Israel’s war in Gaza has grown, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller has increasingly pointed to Israel’s longer-term need for weapons – to defend itself against Iran and the Iran-allied Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The US is “always concerned about anything that could be escalatory,” Miller said after the attack in Damascus. “It has been one of the objectives of this administration since October 7 to prevent the conflict from spreading, recognizing that Israel has the right to defend itself against adversaries who have vowed to bring about its destruction.”

Israel has for years attacked Iranian allies and their locations in the region, rolling back their ability to build strength and cause problems for the Israelis.

Since the October 7 attack by Hamas, part of a network of Iran-linked militias in the region, which shattered Israel’s sense of security, Netanyahu’s government has increasingly added Iranian security agents and leaders to target lists in the region. notes Lister.

The US military has deepened its involvement from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea since the beginning of the war between Hamas and Israel – deploying aircraft carriers in the region to discourage rearguard attacks on Israel, launching air strikes to to suppress shipping by the Iran-allied Houthis. Yemen.

The country is also building a pier off the coast of Gaza to try to get more aid to Palestinian civilians, despite obstacles such as Israeli restrictions and attacks on aid deliveries.