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Former Top Commander Calls For Strong Response To Increasing Attacks on US forces In The Middle East

In reaction to Israel’s ongoing war against Hamas, groups backed by Iran are launching attacks across the Middle East at an alarming rate. These groups frequently target US forces and commercial ships with attack drones, rockets, and missiles.

Retaliatory Strikes

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The persistent attacks have forced the Pentagon to launch a few retaliatory strikes against some Iranian proxies.

They have also prompted concerns about the need for further defensive measures while the Biden administration weighs its options.

Former US Commander Advocates Stronger Action

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According to a former senior US commander who oversaw military operations in the Middle East, a more forceful response could be required to send a strong message to those who harbor malign intentions in the region.

“It does not appear to me that the actions we’ve taken so far have really caused them to change their behavior,” said Gen. Joseph Votel.

General Votel served as the commander of US Central Command, or CENTCOM.

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US Troops in Iraq and Syria

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In order to defeat the Islamic State, the US maintains about 3,500 troops in Iraq and Syria, where they work with local partner forces to conduct counterterrorism operations. Terrorist organizations supported by Iran have been attacking US service members in those two nations for years in an effort to drive Washington out of the area. In just the period from January 2021 to April 2023, for instance, there were 83 strikes.

Attacks Intensified Post 7th October Attack on Israel

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However, since mid-October, when the Israel-Hamas conflict intensified, this number has increased dramatically. According to a US defense official, at least 101 attacks against US forces in Iraq and Syria over the last two months have been carried out by organizations with Iranian support. The figure might actually be higher, according to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank that keeps track of these attacks.

Occasional Retaliation To Attacks

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Despite the fact that most attacks go unretaliated, the US military has occasionally struck back, using fighter jets, combat drones, and gunships to conduct “self-defense strikes” in Syria and Iraq. They have targeted training centers, drone launch sites, and weapon storage facilities used by Tehran-backed militias and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

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Insufficient Response

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Nevertheless, the attackers have not been deterred by these meager retaliatory measures. Votel, who led the battle against ISIS while in charge of CENTCOM from March 2016 to March 2019, stated that the US must put an end to the aggressive actions of those with Iran’s support and “remove uncertainty” from the situation before more casualties occur.

Votel is currently a distinguished senior fellow on national security at the Middle East Institute.

Service Members Have Suffered Casualties

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Numerous service members have been hurt, and one civilian contractor has already passed away from a heart attack.

“They have to be held accountable and we have to go after them, I think, more aggressively than we have,” he said.

Fight Against ISIS Weakening

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Votel also expressed concerns that the attacks against US forces run the risk of seriously affecting the fight against ISIS because some resources required to carry out counterterrorism missions are now being diverted to protecting the American footprint in Iraq and Syria.

These resources include service members’ overall focus as well as the use of aerial assets like drones and gunships. He calls it “an unneeded diversion.”

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A Firm Reaction Is Necessary

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According to Votel, commanders are faced with a dilemma whereby they should be focusing on defeating ISIS, but instead they have to deal with a persistent threat that they cannot ignore. Convincing hostile actors that attacking the US would be more expensive than advantageous requires allocating vital and limited resources to a defense, which exacerbates the issue. However, the former commander contends that a firm reaction is still necessary.

Some Operations Are Going on Even Now

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Still, the Pentagon conducts most of its counterterrorism operations in concert with regional organizations such as the Iraqi Security Forces or the Syrian Democratic Forces. And it is evident that these are going on even in the face of attacks on US forces; US military data shows that in November alone, there were 40 operations, a number that is consistent with previous months.

Steadfast in Uprooting ISIS

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Gen. Michael Erik Kurilla, the current CENTCOM commander, said earlier this month, “Even in the midst of complex challenges within the region, CENTCOM remains steadfast to the region and the enduring defeat of ISIS,”.

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A New Threat

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In response to the attacks in Syria and Iraq, the US has taken some retaliatory action; however, in Yemen, the Houthi rebels have increased their attacks on foreign shipping as a means of retaliating for the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict.

The group supported by Iran has targeted, hijacked, and threatened commercial vessels using important waterways off the coast of Yemen with missiles and drones during the last two months.

Multi-Pronged Attacks

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Although numerous Houthi one-way attack drones and some missiles have been shot down by US, French, and British warships on patrol in the area, some threats have still reached their intended targets.

Several companies have been forced to halt shipping through the Red Sea as a result of these multi-pronged attacks, some of which have damaged commercial vessels. This has prompted the US to discuss expanding its military presence in the region.

Direct Strikes on Yemen On the Cards?

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As per reports, the Biden administration is contemplating direct strikes on Yemen due to the recurring attacks that have also prompted concerns about the potential for a more forceful reaction.

According to Katherine Zimmerman, a counterterrorism expert and fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, “the fact that the threat has escalated to this point—to freight companies routing around Africa instead of transiting the Suez Canal via the Red Sea—shows a failure in the US effort to establish effective deterrence against Iran and its proxies in the Middle East and to protect freedom of navigation.”

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Not The First Time We Would Be Striking Yemen

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In Yemen, attacking the Houthis would not be unprecedented. For instance, the US took this action in 2016 in response to an attack on an American warship in adjacent waters. However, experts argue that the US has responded to aggressions backed by Iran with caution and restraint because the region is on the verge of wider conflict.

A Whole Different Beast

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According to Votel, the Houthis stand out in this situation because they want to be a major player in Iran’s “axis of resistance,” a network of proxy organizations that opposes both the US and Israel throughout the Middle East. He asserted that this reality is also the reason they are dangerous and that a firm response is necessary to their frequent provocations.

Lucky Strikes Do Happen

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The US Navy warships are powerful and well-armed, and they are not much of a threat from the Houthis’ missiles or attack drones, as no direct hits have occurred. However, a lucky strike can happen any times, and the rebels continue to pose a serious threat to commercial shipping, which has alarmed people and had far-reaching effects on the world economy.

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Going After Them is Inevitable

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Votel concludes, “Our ships that are operating down there are doing really darn good work in terms of protecting themselves and, to an extent, protecting others there. But we can’t just always be in an absorb attack and defeat attack kind of world.”

“We will, at some point, have to go after these capabilities, whether they’re radar sites, shore-based missile sites, or whatever it is that they’re doing.”

Finally, he noted that the US will need to “go after them and destroy them, and send a very, very clear message that this can’t happen.”

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