Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 5 March 2024



Inside America’s Shadow War With Iran

In the foreground is an expanse of dirt. In the background is a radar tower and vehicles.
The Tanf military outpost in southern Syria. Credit... Lolita Baldor/Associated Press

Opinion Columnist, who reported from the U.S. garrison in Al Tanf in southern Syria

It’s often been said that the most dangerous hot spot in the world is the waterway between Taiwan and mainland China, where the Chinese Navy and Air Force flex their muscles every day to try to intimidate Taiwan — while the U.S. Navy patrols nearby. I wonder. There is actually a stable balance of deterrence there right now. You could hold a friendly regatta in the Taiwan Straits compared to where I just visited.

I spent two days last week hopscotching in a CH-47 Chinook helicopter among seven U.S. military bases in western Jordan and eastern Syria with America’s senior Middle East Centcom commander, Gen. Michael Kurilla. There is no equilibrium here. What you have, instead, is the other Middle East war that began shortly after the tragic Israel-Hamas war that broke out on Oct. 7.

This other Middle East war pits Iran and its proxies — the Houthis, Hezbollah and Shiite militias in Iraq — against both the small network of U.S. bases in Syria, Jordan and Iraq established after 2014 to destroy the ISIS Islamic state and against the U.S. naval presence in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden that keeps the vital shipping lanes there secure and open.

These Iranian-armed Shiite militias in Iraq and the Houthi fighters in Yemen may not look or seem like lethal threats, but do not be fooled. They have learned to arm, build, adapt and deploy some of the most sophisticated precision weaponry in the world. That weaponry, provided by Iran, can hit a three-foot-wide target 500 miles away.

The young U.S. soldiers and sailors arrayed against them cut their teeth on video games, but now find themselves playing the real thing, deploying with software and cursors the world’s most sophisticated countermeasures and interceptors to swat away almost every rocket and drone the Iranian proxies have been throwing at them.

In short, Americans may not know they’re at war with Iran, but Iran’s Revolutionary Guards know for sure they are in a shadow war with America through their proxies.

And if one of these Iranian proxies gets “lucky” and creates a mass casualty event by striking a U.S. warship or the barracks of one of the U.S. bases in Jordan or Syria — something akin to the Marine Corps barracks bombing in Beirut in 1983 — the U.S.-Iran conflict would surely come out of the shadows and become a direct shooting war in the region the world most depends on for its oil.

Just thought I’d let you know.

This other Middle East war kicked into high gear on Oct. 17, 10 days after the attack on Israel by Hamas, Centcom officials explained to me, when Iran clearly took a decision to rev up all its proxies. Under the cover of the Gaza war and tempted by the anti-American sentiment it has generated, Iran tried to see if it could significantly degrade the U.S. network of facilities in Iraq, eastern Syria and northern Jordan, or perhaps dislodge U.S. forces altogether.

I suspect Tehran also had another goal in mind: to intimidate America’s Arab allies by showing them the damage Iran could inflict on their U.S. protector.

What I know for sure, though, is that this is the most dangerous game of chicken going on anywhere on the planet today, for three reasons.

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The first is the sheer volume of rockets, drones and missiles that Iran’s proxies have deployed — particularly the Houthis in Yemen and the Shiite militias in Iraq. According to Centcom, hundreds of warheads carried by Iranian-supplied land-to-sea rockets, cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, attack drones, suicide speedboats and unmanned underwater vehicles have been fired since Oct. 17 by Iran’s proxies at U.S. bases, warships and commercial vessels in the Red Sea.

Fortunately, despite the volume of attacks, the U.S. has managed to destroy or deflect most of the incoming with interceptors and a growing electronic forest of radars and countermeasures being deployed at the bases and on U.S. warships. This is no easy task; several rockets and drones have gotten through, injuring over 180 U.S. personnel so far, Centcom said, and I saw the physical damage they did at several bases we visited.

These U.S. bases are not luxury compounds. Many started as ramshackle ISIS-controlled bases or small towns that the U.S. and its Kurdish allies took over beginning in 2014 after intense firefights with ISIS in a war that threatened the governments of Syria, Iraq and Jordan all at the same time.

Today, they consist of prefab living quarters surrounded and separated by hundreds and hundreds of concrete blast walls imported by the U.S. to limit the damage of any incoming warheads. Spotty wireless enables soldiers to FaceTime with families and follow sports. Spartan kitchens serve corn dogs, chicken nuggets and the like, and at some of the “nicer” facilities, maybe even a daily selection of fresh fruit — though when you’re a 70-year-old visitor carrying around 50 pounds of body armor and a helmet, it’s amazing how good a big fat corn dog from an Army mess in the Syrian desert can taste.

But because these bases were designed and situated to block ISIS from reconstituting its supply lines and critical mass, they were never meant to deter or attack the vast modern rocket arsenals of Iran and its proxies.

Which is why on Jan. 28, a one-way Iranian attack drone with a 20-pound warhead, launched by a coalition of Iranian-backed Shiite militias called the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, hit a U.S. facility, Tower 22, in northeastern Jordan.

I visited Tower 22 with General Kurilla’s team last week. The blast killed three U.S. soldiers, who were blown right out of their bunks, and injured 47. Fortunately, the modular living quarters there were separated by blast walls. A soldier in the bunkhouse right next to the one hit told us he was talking to his wife on FaceTime when the drone struck; protected by a thick cement barrier, he emerged shaken but unscathed. Watching live, his wife thought he was dead when he disappeared in smoke but he was able to contact her three hours later and assure her otherwise.

I was surprised to learn just how aggressive the Iranians have encouraged their proxies to be, which is what leads to the second, extremely dangerous aspect of this war.

It was what General Kurilla dryly described to me as a deterrence “conversation” Centcom had with Iran after the Tower 22 attack to make clear to Tehran that it was playing with fire.

Credit... Planet Labs Pbc/Planet Labs PBC, via Associated Press

On Feb. 2, the U.S. launched airstrikes against the whole Iranian proxy network in Iraq and Syria, and the next day against Houthi sites in Yemen, hitting more than 100 targets overall, with a combination of long-range B-1 bombers out of Texas, and cruise missiles and fighter bombers launched from the Eisenhower carrier group in the Red Sea. Some 40 people were reported to have been killed in the U.S. retaliatory strikes.

The operation was then capped off on Feb. 7 when the U.S. decided to demonstrate to Iran and its proxies what kind of combined intelligence/precision warfare the U.S. can deploy by killing Abu Baqir al-Saedi, the specific commander from Kataib Hezbollah who the U.S. determined was in charge of drone attacks on its bases in Iraq, Jordan and Syria.

Al-Saedi was hit while driving on a Baghdad street by the same kind of drone-fired Hellfire missile that killed the senior Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander Qassim Suleimani in 2020. It was equipped with six swordlike blades that once it penetrates a vehicle slice and dice anything in their path like a blender, which is why the missile has been nicknamed the “Flying Ginsu.”

This American response clearly got the Iranians’ attention, and Iran’s proxies have been observing an undeclared cease-fire on land ever since, which certainly helped ease my mind as we flew around in helicopters and a C-130 all over the ungoverned spaces of eastern Syria, too close for my comfort one day near the joint Russian-Iranian base on the western side of the Euphrates.

This informal cease-fire, though, has not been embraced by the Houthis, who have declared that they will not stop firing at international ships, the U.S. Navy or Israel, at least until there is a cease-fire in Gaza. Last weekend, the Belize-flagged cargo ship Rubymar, which the Houthis hit with an anti-ship ballistic missile on Feb. 18, became the first vessel to entirely sink in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, as a result of a Houthi missile attack. It created a huge ecological mess of leaked fuel and the fertilizer it was carrying. Thank you, Houthis.

And that leads to the third dangerous aspect of this shadow war. At every base we visited there was a top-secret room journalists could not go into, called the combat integration center. Inside, young American soldiers (and sailors on Navy vessels) stare at screens, try to identify the myriad objects flying toward them and decide by its radar and visual signature whether to engage one, ignore another or let a third go by, figuring it is going to miss and land harmlessly. Discipline is important when you’re firing $200,000 interceptors at $20,000 Iranian drones, a Centcom officer told me.

These operators often have less than 90 seconds to make up their mind whether to engage an incoming drone with a Coyote drone-interceptor that can detect and destroy attack drones at very close range and can be launched from ground vehicles, helicopters or surface vessels.

In other words, every day is pregnant with a low-probability-but-high-consequence event. And the first, and often last, line of defense is usually a 20-something U.S. soldier or sailor squinting at a computer screen, trying to decide with software within seconds what is coming his or her way and engaging the right countermeasures.

Amid all of this, I should add, we also visited Al Hol detention camp in the middle of nowhere in northeastern Syria, where some 43,000 people — mostly ISIS “brides” and their children — are being held in tents and prefabs under Kurdish guards until they can be deprogrammed and returned to their home countries. It is pretty strange to talk to an American or British woman who got drawn into the ISIS cult and hear that she has five or six kids by three or four different ISIS combatants, all of whom were killed by the U.S.-led coalition. Judging from the number of rocks some of the kids threw at our armored convey, the deprogramming process has a way to go.

Given all the risks and open sores out here, it’s worth asking: Why stay? First let me describe a scene, and then offer an answer.

The scene: General Kurilla’s team was visiting the Tanf garrison, a small logistics support base inside Syria, near where Syria, Iraq and Jordan meet. Kurilla took the opportunity to do a battlefield promotion, from second lieutenant to first lieutenant, for a medical platoon leader stationed there. We were standing in an alley and around us were all just different shades of brown — the desert, the buildings, you name it.

Kurilla first asked for someone to get him an American flag and a couple of minutes later two platoon members showed up with a small one and held it up at shoulder level, framing Kurilla and the young officer being promoted.

“Our army is unique in the world,” Kurilla said to the young man. “We don’t swear an oath to a person or a king, we swear an oath to an idea, embodied in the Constitution and ingrained in our democracy, that all men and women are created equal. We swear an oath to defend that idea.”

Kurilla then administered the oath that every U.S. soldier — this one an enlistee who had worked his way up — repeats as he or she rises in rank. His oath complete, the newly minted first lieutenant slapped on a cap displaying his new rank and then gave a shout-out to each member of his platoon.

There was something about that scene that hit me: the two soldiers holding up their little Stars and Stripes that provided the only color in this vast brown tableau, and the oath of allegiance to an idea, not a king, muffled by the protective blast walls of this far-flung base in a region that has mostly known only the opposite.

During the post-Cold War era, from the early 1990s to the 2010s, I thought it might actually be possible to bring more consensual politics and pluralism to this part of the world — thanks to the Oslo Accords, the Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty, the Arab Spring uprisings and the greater integration that was resulting from globalization.

But it did not happen. Rather than the spread of democracy this region experienced metastasizing disorder and failing states. At the same time, the big divide in the world became no longer between democracy and autocracy, but between order and disorder.

The best case for U.S. forces remaining in eastern Syria, Iraq and the Red Sea is precisely so that the disorder “over there” — from the likes of ISIS, failed states like Syria and the eating away of nation-states by Iranian proxy militias — doesn’t come “over here.”

It is not a pretty or heroic mission — living in body armor all day in a harsh and hostile environment, with all the corn dogs you can eat as one of the few pleasures — but it’s probably worth it. That said, we should have no illusions about the risks because the shadow war playing out there could come screaming out of the shadows at any moment.

More from Thomas L. Friedman on Iran and the Middle East

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