US attack in Syria: Why now? What can be learned? Experts weigh in

“The strike was limited but showed we would use force and clearly could do much more,” said Dennis Ross, “we will see if the Iranians get the message.”

Fences are seen on the ceasefire line between Israel and Syria in the Golan Heights March 25, 2019. (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
Fences are seen on the ceasefire line between Israel and Syria in the Golan Heights March 25, 2019.
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
WASHINGTON – US military airstrikes against facilities belonging to what the Pentagon said were Iran-backed militia in eastern Syria were a calibrated response to rocket attacks against US targets in Iraq, according to Dennis Ross, a former senior US official and a Middle East expert.
“The administration understood that it had to show the militias [that they] would pay a price,” he said.
According to Reuters, the strikes appeared to be limited in scope, possibly seeking to lower the risk of escalation.
“At President [Joe] Biden’s direction, US military forces earlier this evening conducted airstrikes against infrastructure utilized by Iranian-backed militant groups in eastern Syria,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a statement.
“President Biden will act to protect American and coalition personnel. At the same time, we have acted in a deliberate manner that aims to de-escalate the overall situation in both eastern Syria and Iraq,” he said.
Kirby added that the strikes destroyed several facilities at a border control point used by a number of Iranian-backed militant groups, including Kata’ib Hezbollah and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada.
“You can’t act with impunity. Be careful,” US President Joe Biden told reporters in Texas when asked what message he was sending to Iran with the airstrikes.
Syria said the attacks were a “cowardly act” and urged Biden not to follow “the law of the jungle.”
“Syria condemns in the strongest terms the cowardly US attack on areas in Deir al-Zor near the Syrian-Iraqi border,” the Syrian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
“It [the Biden administration] is supposed to stick to international legitimacy, not to the law of the jungle as [did] the previous administration.”
An official from an Iraqi militia close to Iran said the strikes killed one fighter and wounded four.
Washington and Tehran are seeking maximum leverage in attempts to save Iran’s nuclear deal reached with world powers in 2015 but abandoned in 2018 by then-president Donald Trump, after which regional tensions soared and fears of full-scale conflict grew.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh condemned the US strikes, calling them “illegal aggression” and a violation of human rights and international law.
Ross, a Distinguished Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The Jerusalem Post that, “No doubt, the administration wanted to act in a way that might limit the blowback on PM Kadhimi and the Iraq government, hence hitting a target used by Shia militias just across the border in Syria.”
He said the attack was designed to show that there would be a military response if US forces were targeted, or the militias continued to strike.
“The strike was limited, but showed we would use force and clearly could do much more,” Ross continued. “If the Iranians continue to build pressure on us, including by using their militias, the signal is we will respond. We will see if the Iranians get the message.”
DR. JONATHAN SCHANZER,, senior vice president for research at the FDD think tank in Washington, said that the attacks were surgical in nature, avoided escalation of tensions in Iraq, and are not expected to provoke a wider conflagration.
“In short, the strikes were largely symbolic,” he told the Post.
“That said, even a limited response to Iran and its proxies, particularly this early in the Biden administration, is better than none at all,” he noted. “It is a message to the regime in Iran that the new administration is not afraid to respond to provocations, and that escalation is possible.”
He added that while some may point to the timing of the strikes, in the wake of the Khashoggi report, he does not believe them to be related.
“America was provoked; America responded,” Schanzer said. “It is doubtful that Saudi Arabia was a significant factor in the decision to strike.”
 “That said, the Saudis, Israelis, Emiratis and other regional actors are certainly watching with interest,” he added. “America is being tested by Iran amid talk of a return to nuclear diplomacy. How the administration handles itself here could provide hints of whether the administration will be obsequious or adopt a harder line.”
Reuters contributed to this report.