US aims to control Iranian proxies amidst growing fears of escalating Middle East conflict
US officials are attempting to handle rising attacks by Iran-backed proxy groups on US troops without instigating a wider war. They have retaliated several times to these attacks, and stated they would not hesitate to do so again. However, the US has been hesitant to move beyond self-defense strikes and backchannel diplomacy, and is concerned about the risk of the conflict spreading.
US Response to Iran-Backed Proxy Attacks: A Delicate Balancing Act
US officials are scrutinizing potential responses to the escalating attacks by Iran-backed proxy groups on US troops and ships in the Red Sea, without inciting a wider Middle Eastern conflict. The US has already retaliated against the proxy group’s attacks by striking militants and infrastructure in Iraq and Syria, and by downing missiles and drones launched by Houthi rebels in Yemen.
The US also killed a group of Houthi militants attempting to board a commercial vessel in the Red Sea. A senior administration official affirmed that the US would not hesitate to use lethal force again in self-defense against the Houthis. However, the US is reluctant to escalate beyond self-defense strikes and backchannel diplomacy, despite the Pentagon drawing up various options for President Joe Biden to strike the Houthis inside Yemen.
Amidst Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza and escalating tensions due to an Israeli strike on a Hamas leader in Lebanon and a major ISIS terror attack in Iran, the US is scrambling to prevent a broader multi-country war. “We remain incredibly concerned regarding the risk of conflict spreading onto other fronts,” explained State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller.
The US is wary of undermining the US and UN-brokered truce between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis over the war in Yemen, which is considered a significant foreign policy achievement by the Biden administration. Officials worry that continued Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping could disrupt global trade and undermine Biden’s economic strength.
Besides the Houthi threat, the US also has concerns over potential Iranian retaliation. Iran has been providing weapons and intelligence to the Houthis, reportedly deploying a warship to the southern Red Sea in a show of support. Even in Iraq, where US action against Iranian militias has been more direct, White House officials are cautious not to provoke the Iraqi government.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin recently announced a multinational security initiative, “Operation Prosperity Guardian”, in response to increased Houthi aggression in the Red Sea. A joint statement by the US and 12 other countries, condemning Houthi attacks on shipping, signalled the coalition’s waning patience and hinted at possible military action.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s upcoming trip to the Middle East will focus on indirect backchanneling to Iran to deter a wider conflict. Blinken plans to reassure the regional leaders he meets that the US does not wish to escalate the conflict. This message is expected to be passed on to Iran and its proxies. Any continuation of attacks will lead to action, warned British Foreign Secretary David Cameron.
Despite these warnings, Houthi rebels continue to attack shipping, with the latest incident involving an unmanned surface vessel detonating in international shipping lanes. In response to this, the US has targeted and killed a pro-Iran militia commander in Baghdad, marking the second strike on Iranian proxies in Iraq in just over a week.
To try to calm tensions between Israel and Lebanon, the White House dispatched senior envoy Amos Hochstein to Israel. Hochstein is working with both governments to reach a diplomatic solution and prevent the conflict from expanding. During his trip, Blinken will stop in Israel to discuss plans to transition to a lower-intensity phase of operations in Gaza and ways to stem the spread of the conflict. “We don’t expect every conversation on this trip to be easy,” Miller admitted.
CNN’s Jennifer Hansler, Alex Marquardt MJ Lee contributed reporting.
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