Ten days after the rocket attack on U.S. forces in Irbil, Iraq, the Biden administration conducted air strikes on a weapons smuggling way-point at the border of Iraq and Syria.
In the interim, Iran-backed militias attacked U.S. targets at Balad Air Base in north-central Iraq, and the Green Zone in Baghdad where the U.S. embassy is located.
A little geographic orientation helps our understanding of what has happened. The map shows where the rocket attacks were, in relation to the border crossing where the 25 February air strikes were conducted.
Note that the border crossing is used by Iran-backed militias to smuggle weapons that originate in Iran, and then cross Iraq, into Syria.
The weapons at that border crossing are not being used for attacks on U.S. targets in northern Iraq or Baghdad. They’re being smuggled into Syria for use in Syria, or for onward transport to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
A few other points about the 25 February strike. One, it reportedly entailed 7 bombs for 7 targets. Since the bombs were 500-lb JDAMs, the targets had to be of limited size. In a Pentagon brief, spokesman John Kirby (yes, retired Admiral Kirby, who briefed for the Pentagon during the Obama years) said 9 buildings were destroyed and 2 damaged. With more than one “building” destroyed per warhead, we’re obviously not talking large structures like warehouses.
As imagery confirmed on 26 February, the targets amounted only to small, shed-type buildings of light construction.
— Aurora Intel (@AuroraIntel) February 27, 2021
The buildings appear to have had nothing of note in them. They housed no in-ground infrastructure. The broad scorching in the imagery, and relative absence of rubble, confirm their decidedly non-hardened construction. They offered no resistance to the 500-lb bombs.
If it seems like that’s not a particularly significant strike, give yourself a little gold star for analysis.
Additional note: I emphasize that these images, including date and origin, are unverified, as far as I can tell. However, CBS News is using them to illustrate the strikes. They were forwarded as showing the air strike targets from ground level after the strike. Obviously, Iran-backed militias would be motivated to depict the strike’s effects as minimal, so take it with the prescribed grain of salt. The images are compatible with the satellite image evidence, although I would expect the appearance of ground scorching to be more pronounced.
Photos from Eastern #Syria, reportedly show the destruction after #airstrikes by the #US on the "Iranian-backed" militia on the Iraqi – Syrian border.
آثار الدمار في شرقي #سوریا خلف القصف الأمریکي علی میلیشا "مدعوم من #إیران" حسب ما قال وزارة الدفاع الامریکیة. https://t.co/rVy0BRP8KZ pic.twitter.com/z67rKoD0k2
— Shabeer Ahmadi (@shabeerahmadiM) February 26, 2021
The location was a border crossing newly constructed in late 2019 near the original border crossing facilities in use for many years between Al-Qaim, Iraq and Al-Bukamal, Syria. The newly constructed installation was for the Iran-backed militias.
This infrastructure was developed so that Iran could move weapons across Iraq and into Syria, for use in Syria or further transport to Lebanon. And Israel has been bombing targets in this area frequently for the last year (see here, here, and here).
In a series of attacks in January and February 2021, the IDF is believed to be behind devastating strikes on tunnels, warehouses, and other structures used by the Iran-backed militias at the Al Bukamal border crossing, the Imam Ali Base just west of it, and further up the Euphrates (toward Deir ez-Zor) near Masyaf.
With relatively little collated information available to the public, we can’t necessarily identify all the targets the IDF struck. But after such a campaign, with the most recent strikes having taken place on 15 February, there probably wasn’t much left to hit “fresh” by 25 February.
So we attacked some small outbuildings with little or nothing in them. Fortunately, Congress is to receive a classified brief on the strike next week. Formalities and pomp may confer some semblance of gravitas on this plinking of vermin.
— Bill Postmus (@billpostmus) February 27, 2021
Meanwhile, in spite of the warning signal sent to Iran by this vigorous blow, U.S. forces in Iraq have had to be put on a heightened alert due to the likelihood of retaliation against them.
No way. Bombing miscellaneous structures at the border crossing in Syria didn't enhance US forces security? https://t.co/JKCQpVGoJd
— J.E. Dyer (@OptimisticCon) February 26, 2021
This is probably because what we did not do is interdict the capabilities of whoever attacked U.S. interests in Iraq at Irbil and Balad, and in the Green Zone. Weapons being smuggled into Syria through Anbar Province have already bypassed their staging points in the logistics pipeline.
Moreover, the group claiming credit for the attacks around Irbil is a little-known militia, Awliya al-Dam, without explicitly established ties to the two militia groups named in the Pentagon press statement (Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid Al Shuhada) – the groups known to be active at the Al-Bukamal border crossing.
Awliya al-Dam is likely, it is true, to be linked to one or both. But the reporting on the strikes at Al-Bukamal doesn’t actually say the targets hit on 25 February were connected to the recent rocket attacks. It says the umbrella militia groups (i.e., Kataib Hezbollah) that use the crossing for smuggling have been behind attacks on U.S. troops in the past. The affiliations link is tenuous, theoretically likely but with no demonstrable operational import. The operational connection to the border crossing is non-existent.
The model for these strikes would be Robert McNamara’s “incremental escalation” demonstrations – messaging events – to North Vietnam and the USSR in the Vietnam War. It’s not a model that can be said to have worked as envisioned.
(From a few years earlier, a sympathetic depiction of McNamara (Dylan Baker) berating an admiral for failing to understand the smoke signals during the Cuban missile crisis.)
“This is not a blockade. This is language! A new vocabulary, the likes of which the world has never seen! This is President Kennedy communicating with Secretary Khrushchev!”
Meanwhile, an uprising
Chronologically, what came just before the perfunctory U.S. strikes was the eruption of a provincial uprising in Sistan and Baluchistan in far southeastern Iran. The IRGC has been trying to repress the illicit local trade in gasoline fuel there, an extremely common pattern across the broader region, but has ruthlessly killed hundreds of Baluchis in the process over the last decade. It appears that the heavy hand of the IRGC laid the last straw on the camel’s back this past week.
A local uprising described by observers as the most significant activity of its kind in many years (possibly since the 1979 revolution) began in several locations on Tuesday, 23 February.
People are furious in #Saravan city in #SistanBaluchestan. After Revolutionary Guards killed dozens of crossborders workers yesterday they took to the streets to protest. People are suffering from poverty and all they received from the regime in iran is live bullets. pic.twitter.com/C4WkF8I0ba
— Masih Alinejad 🏳️ (@AlinejadMasih) February 23, 2021
Iranian regime shoots fuel traders causing revolt in Saravan https://t.co/WAXsHapqX8
— nasrin amirsedghi (@wataneman) February 24, 2021
This is claimed to be the moment when angry Baloch youth entered an IRGC base in Khash, Sistan & Baluchestan province of Iran, and overwhelmed the regime's security agents. #Iran pic.twitter.com/3znyA01CrR
— FJ (@Natsecjeff) February 24, 2021
Iran Protests activists have broken security cordon in Zahedan, capital of Sistan-Baluchistan province, and entered several government buildings including the Governor's Office. #Iran
— Newsistaan (@newsistaan) February 24, 2021
Brave rebellious #Baluchi youth in #Zahedan lower the flag of the oppressor IRGC from the top of one of its headquarters
The uprising of the people of #Baluchistan has reached a new peak after the #Saravan massacre. pic.twitter.com/DLP7XbhdPm
— .𝓑𝓲𝓭𝓲𝓼𝓱𝓪 (@bidishalolo) February 24, 2021
— Iran Panorama News (@IranPanoramaNew) February 24, 2021
full scale anti regime uprising in Iranian Baluchistan. Over 40 killed in clashes with the IRGC. Situation now elevated to “Crisis” category, the highest in the security classification of the regime with “fire at will” authorisation to state thugs. Bloodbath imminent. Media note!
— kaveh moussavi (@KavehMoussavi) February 24, 2021
Internet blackout in SE Iranian province as protests continue#Saravan
— Heshmat Alavi (@HeshmatAlavi) February 25, 2021
It’s getting little media attention in the West, but so far it has reportedly involved the locals overrunning three IRGC outposts in the province. Indeed, the on-scene setbacks for the outmanned IRGC have been so significant that the government force is calling for additional troops and weaponry from nearby provinces.
— abbasali kheirandish (@abbasali210) February 27, 2021
And in other parts of Iran, demonstrations have assembled in support of the Baluchis. It’s not out of the question for more and more Iranians to seize opportunities as the Basij becomes further overstretched.
Iran – Amol
Message of solidarity with the uprising of the people of Saravan and the people of Baluchistan by the citizens in Amol in northern Iran#Iran #Iranprotests #BaluchistanUprising#Amol #Saravan #Baluchistan pic.twitter.com/4MZO9qV86T
— Iranian voice (@iranian_voice) February 27, 2021
#Iran. En solidarité avec le #soulevement populaire & guerre vs régime au #Baloutchistan (sud-est), les #jeunes de #Tabriz #Azerbaidjan (Nord-ouest), connus pour leur #patriotisme, ont incendié des pneus et sont parvenus à bloquer la route vitale #Tehran-Tabriz. #IranProtests https://t.co/Ots3bLqO4f
— Kaveh Mohseni (@Kavehkhan) February 26, 2021
Despite censorship and a bloody crackdown on Iranian Baluch protesters, the people of #Iran from different provinces declare their support of their compatriots in Saravan.
Iranian diasporas gathered in front of the UN headquarter in Geneva.https://t.co/4knPSRDG4B
— Iran News Update (@IranNewsUpdate1) February 26, 2021
It’s too soon to say where this is going. One thing the Baluchis may have an advantage in is their ethnic reach across the border into Pakistan. While the uprising was spreading on Wednesday, Pakistani observers were chronicling it with some enthusiasm from across the line. In this province of extreme southeastern Iran, it may be possible – if the Baluchis organize – for them to have materiel (and perhaps additional fighters) smuggled into Iran.
Again, it’s early days yet on such analyses. The picture of the IRGC being overstretched in the province and unable to hold its outposts under determined assault is significant, however.
The rest of the story
I hate to give short shrift to the important development with the Baluchis, which may turn out to be the biggest one of all. But it’s essential for getting inside the OODA loop of events to have a clear view of what the Biden administration has been doing as these other developments were coming to a head.
Since 20 January, as noted before in these pages, President Biden has withdrawn support for Saudi Arabia’s efforts to thwart the activities of the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen, who frequently attempt attacks on civilian targets in Saudi Arabia from across the border.
Biden has canceled the designation of the Houthis as a terrorist group (in spite of the Houthis’ record of disruptive attacks on civilian targets, in Yemen as well as Saudi Arabia, and possibly in other GCC nations too). The consequence of that is that U.S. sanctions measures that would apply under the terrorist designation no longer do.
Those measures increase Iran’s free hand in Yemen, where the mullahs have been endeavoring for a decade to implant a forward outpost of significant size, capability, and location (i.e., on the Red Sea, suitable for hosting missiles and aircraft and able to hold much of the waterway network at risk).
The U.S. has also reversed an arcanely formulated but very important Iran-sanctions policy of the Trump administration, the upshot of which means that Biden doesn’t intend to threaten third party nations and businesses with sanctions if they do business with Iran. An element of the JCPOA and its implementing UN resolution, UNSCR 2231, this is a major concession to Iran, effectively eliminating the reluctance of most third parties to resume economic engagement.
That alone will make a significant difference to the radical regime’s ability to maintain itself in power, build its arsenal, and sponsor terrorism and militant groups abroad.
But restoring the regime’s ability to earn money with trade is a slow-working method. The boost the mullahs really need for their political aspirations is fast injections of cash.
So the Biden administration has arranged for that too. Instead of the inelegant solution of the Obama administration in 2016, when those embarrassing pallets of cash were brought to public notice by candidate Donald Trump, Team Biden’s arrangement is agreeing to the release of at least $1 billion in frozen Iranian funds by South Korea (with an implied promise of as much as $7 billion to come).
If you don’t want to be caught handling the cash, have a bagman do it for you.
One more thing is being done by an ally rather than by the U.S. Last week, as noted in my earlier article, NATO stepped up to the plate and nobly offered to deploy 4,000 troops to Iraq to “fight ISIS,” on the disjunctive pretext that Iran-backed militias had attacked Americans in Irbil.
This has gotten hardly any media coverage, as far as I can tell. I assess that to be because it is so transparently out of phase with what would really make sense after Iran’s proxies have attacked Americans in Iraq; i.e., dealing swift and decisive counter-blows to Iran.
But pleading “ISIS” mirrors exactly the Obama policy that had U.S. forces providing military support to those selfsame Iran-backed militias from 2014 through 2016, in Iran’s project to occupy much of Iraq. Instead of U.S. forces supporting that effort, NATO will apparently make its European armies available for the task.
From inside the OODA loop
Make no mistake, as that long-ago POTUS-in-Chief used to say. The precipitate haste with which this is being done is not mere happenstance.
Analyses that still see this as all about getting Iran to the bargaining table aren’t wrong, exactly, but they are two important things: incomplete, and lagging. They are outside the OODA loop, fated to misinterpret what’s going on.
We’re past the dance of years at a time trying to maneuver Iran to the negotiating table. If that were all that the cabal behind Biden (TIME’s word, not mine) had in mind, on a timetable like Obama’s original, the cabal wouldn’t have done even one of these things yet.
No, what Biden is doing, or what’s being done in his name, is racing to restore Iran’s advantageous conditions from five years ago, heedless of the effect on the likelihood of negotiations. This is only secondarily about incentivizing negotiations. Job One is what Washington is actually doing: putting radical Iran back in a privileged and unfettered condition.
This may well be in large part because the regime is, in fact, tottering, and needs its preferred lifelines to shore itself back up. The exceptional haste of these Team Biden movements suggests that to me: this is emergency-room treatment for the radical regime in Tehran.
But it’s essential to recognize that this is not Obama redux. It’s Obama on fast-forward, and we are profoundly wrong to think these events are occurring in rapid succession and yet nothing really fundamental is changing.
These events are the change. The center of gravity in time, as the loop for this problem is defined, is not an eventual renegotiation (or even a simple reinstatement) of the JCPOA.
The center of gravity in time is what’s happening right now. (Hence, incidentally, the rapid escalation, presumably by Iran, to a probable attack on an Israeli cargo ship on 26 February. That development, if it’s confirmed, would continue to jerk things forward, in a way watching for something to happen with the JCPOA does not.)
Remarkably, however, we may have a particular reason to hope. Because out of the blue, in remotest ethnically-diverse Iran, an uprising has begun that has Iran-watchers amazed, absorbed, and expectant.
If it had to be somewhere, think what it could mean that it’s in the one province in all of Iran whose coastline is exclusively characterized by direct access outside the Strait of Hormuz or Central Asia. With its implications for Pakistan, in Pakistani territory that for years has hosted factions of the Taliban and disaffected insurgents against Islamabad, there’s a lot that could come into play here: an emergence of regional motion in which things could move faster than the current U.S. administration can effectively play the disguised hand it has favored so far.
No one outside the Western Left takes the bombing of Syria with 7 JDAMs seriously. If we are to play an effective hand, it will have to be the American way: in the open, or at least face-to-face, not skulking around making Delphic communications with 500-lb bombs.
The compromised nature of the messaging is evident in this simple reality: the message from those bombs wasn’t meant for Iran. It was meant for the American public. Iran knows that, the whole region knows it, the Europeans, Putin, Xi – they all know it.
And the American public does too, if it pauses to think for 15 seconds.
But will this be when the Iranian people save the day, most especially for themselves, by standing up inside the OODA loop and blowing it to smithereens? I know no better than anyone else, and would not raise false hopes. But surely there will be help for them. Maybe Iran’s regime has not yet recovered enough from Trump’s tightened sanctions to brutally “stabilize” its deteriorating domestic conditions.
This may go in fits and starts, and it may seem impossible now. But no one would have predicted success for the Abraham Accords a year ago either. And Washington isn’t the only place succor can come from.
One of our best old hands on Iran, Michael Ledeen, likes to say, “Faster, please!” Fast or slow, the current drama isn’t an overture; it’s more like being catapulted into Act III. God be with the people of Iran, as indeed with all the peoples of this most ancient of regions.