What Will the United States Do after the Drone Strike in Jordan?

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A short, spoken-word summary from CSIS’s Jon B. Alterman on his commentary, “What Will the United States Do after the Drone Strike in Jordan?”

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On January 28, a drone reportedly piloted by forces connected to Iran killed three U.S. troops at a base in northeast Jordan and wounded more than two dozen more. The strike is the highest casualty event the United States has had in the Middle East in more than a decade.

Q1: What prompted this strike?

A1: The strike did not come out of the blue. Iranian-linked forces have launched more than 150 attacks on U.S. forces since October 17, and U.S. officials considered it only a matter of time before service members died. Iran has funded, trained, and equipped an “axis of resistance” in the Middle East that includes Hamas, which has been seeking to capitalize on the Gaza war to increase pressure on the United States. The long-term goal of these efforts is to push the United States from the region. It seeks to do so partly by increasing regional hostility to the U.S. presence and partly by increasing the U.S. costs of that presence.

Q2: How will the United States respond?

A2: While the United States is likely to carry out military strikes, it is unlikely to change the military situation in the Middle East dramatically, or to change the calculus of Iran or its proxies.

After all, previous U.S. efforts to deter Iranian proxies have failed. Just last week, U.S. forces responded to attacks on the Al-Asad airbase in Iraq with strikes on three sites connected to Iranian-linked forces in the country, and it has conducted more than a week of strikes on Yemen’s Houthi rebels, whose attacks threaten Red Sea shipping lanes.

U.S. Defense Department statements after the U.S. strikes have referred to them as “necessary” and “proportionate,” which is a way of signaling that they comply with international law. Even so, international support for the U.S. use of force has been sparse, even from NATO members such as France and Italy.

Thus far, Biden has personally directed the deliberate strikes in Iraq and Yemen. This is because the strategic goal in the White House is preventing a spiral toward a wider war that would have no immediate goal or endpoint. Yet, that caution could undermine U.S. deterrence, as targets can calculate the risks of their actions with some precision. While the U.S. military has developed a long list of Iranian-aligned targets in Iraq and Syria (and even Iran) that it can choose from, it will refrain from hitting targets that it thinks risk eliciting a wide-scale response.

Q3: Will the United States stumble into a war anyway?

A3: While the odds of wider-scale violence have ticked up, a broad regional war remains unlikely. Instead, both sides are likely to probe to discover each other’s redlines, creating a steadier beat of reciprocal violence over the coming months rather than a sudden eruption.

While some sort of U.S. military action this week can be expected, the prospect of the United States brokering another temporary ceasefire in Gaza will remain the main focus of White House efforts. An agreement in Gaza would lower the regional temperature, rebuild cooperation with U.S. allies in the region, and put some wind in the sails of U.S. diplomacy. Even so, it won’t do much to leaven other bad national security news: Ukraine funding seems increasingly imperiled in Congress, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan’s meetings with a senior Chinese official seemed not to produce much cooperation on Middle East issues, and Iran seems emboldened because its strategy of not seeking accommodation with the United States and other Western powers is paying dividends.

Jon B. Alterman is a senior vice president, holds the Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and is director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Jon Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program