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Biden's inaction on Gaza puts US troops at risk

Biden's inaction on Gaza puts US troops at risk

After the Israeli strike on Iran's consulate in Syria, a ceasefire would go a long way at mitigating potential escalation points

Analysis | Middle East

Israel’s strike on the Iranian consulate in Damascus earlier this week may shatter the month-long ceasefire between U.S. troops and Iran-aligned militias in Iraq and Syria.

While a combination of U.S. strikes and Iranian pressure has reined in the militias for the past two months , Israel may prematurely end the arrangement that kept American soldiers out of harm's way, all the while President Joe Biden has done precious little in practical terms to protect U.S. personnel in the long term by securing a lasting ceasefire in Gaza.

The temporary truce between the U.S. and the Iran-supported militias was never likely to be enduring. A complete end to the attacks would invariably require a ceasefire in Gaza, a reality that Biden administration officials recognize. Just last week, Biden’s own Special Envoy to Yemen, Timothy Lenderking, publicly stated that a ceasefire in Gaza would halt Houthi attacks in the Red Sea.

But even if the truce survives Israel’s attack in Damascus, Biden can’t count indefinitely on luck and should not gamble with the lives of American troops. Thus far, he has squandered the opportunity that the truce provided to secure a ceasefire. The Damascus strikes should be a wake-up call for the White House to get serious about pushing Israel to cease its bombardment of Gaza.

While attacks by Iran-aligned militias and the Houthis predate the Gaza conflict, the recent escalation and brazenness since last October are undeniable. According to the Pentagon, there were no recorded attacks by Iran-aligned militias in the third quarter of 2023, which concluded just one week before Hamas’s assault on Israel. However, following the outbreak of the Gaza conflict, attacks resumed, with the Pentagon documenting at least 134 incidents targeting U.S. interests in Iraq and Syria in the final three months of 2023. (The only period in which there were no attacks against U.S. interests by the militias was during the brief ceasefire in November 2023.)

But attacks by the militias on U.S. troops have effectively ceased. That may now change, thanks to Israel.

Tehran sees the Israeli strike that killed the senior commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Syria and Lebanon as a significant escalation. The Iranians are taking a page out of Washington’s playbook by holding the U.S. responsible for Israel’s actions since Washington insists that Tehran is responsible for Houthi attacks by virtue of Iran arming and funding the Yemeni movement. This was signified by Tehran sending a message to Biden through Swiss intermediaries, which most likely contained a warning that Washington’s failure to prevent Israel’s actions could prematurely end the truce with the militias. Indeed, in secret talks held in Oman between senior U.S. and Iranian officials, the American demand for Tehran to rein in the militias and the Houthis was met with an Iranian counterdemand that Biden reins in Israel.

Hopefully, cooler heads will prevail in Tehran. Washington recognizes that Iran can badly afford an open war with Israel. Iran has already absorbed significant blows from Israel without retaliating, which is partly explained by Tehran’s focus on the long game. But this posture is under intensified pressure from hardline elements inside the regime who argue that the failure to respond has undermined Iran’s deterrence against Israel and Iran’s credibility among Middle Eastern powers.

Biden’s policy, however, cannot be premised on cooler heads prevailing in Iran. When it comes to protecting U.S. troops beyond a temporary truce — which requires a ceasefire in Gaza — Biden’s conduct has been nothing short of a dereliction of duty.

For the first five months of the Gaza conflict, the Biden administration did little more than issue one tepid call for an eventual ceasefire “as soon as practicable.” Last month, it finally allowed a U.N. Security Council Resolution for a Gaza ceasefire to pass by abstaining from the vote. But it then undermined its own abstention by labeling the resolution nonbinding. White House national security communications adviser John Kirby further diluted the impact of the abstention by insisting, “our vote does not, I repeat does not, represent a shift in our policy.”

What exactly is this policy? The administration’s public statements, including Kirby’s remarks after the Israeli strike that killed World Central Kitchen aid workers, seem more like a public relations effort for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu than a coherent policy to promote U.S. interests. President Biden has continued to sidestep Congress to send weapons to Israel, weapons used in the killing of over 32,000 Palestinian civilians. The administration permits Israel to obstruct humanitarian aid while shielding it at the U.N. by vetoing three ceasefire resolutions and refusing to call for an unconditional ceasefire.

Besides protecting Israel from any accountability, Biden has invested his diplomatic capital in a thus far unsuccessful mediation between Israel, Egypt, Qatar, and Hamas to secure a deal that releases all the Israeli hostages and brings about a ceasefire.

While this comes across as a laudable effort on the face of it, it contains a significant problem that has helped prolong the slaughter in Gaza: Just as Biden’s draft U.N. resolution linked a ceasefire with a hostage release, so does the deal he is trying to secure with Israel and Hamas. This linkage effectively justifies Israel’s indiscriminate bombardment of Gaza: As long as the hostages aren’t released, this approach legitimizes the continued bombardment of civilians in Gaza.

As such, Biden’s approach has not only failed to secure the release of the Israeli hostages, but it has effectively taken 2 million Gazans as hostages whose lives can only be made safe once the roughly 130 Israeli hostages are released. Moreover, given the regional dynamics and Israel’s desire to expand the war to Lebanon and Iran, the lives of American troops in the region are now also hostages to Biden’s flawed approach. Biden is effectively prioritizing Netanyahu’s desires (who incidentally isn’t prioritizing the release of Israeli hostages and who wants a prolonged and widened war) over the lives and interests of Americans.

This is why the U.N. resolution that passed last week de-linked the hostage release from a ceasefire and treated both as independent imperatives. This would be more effective in saving the lives of civilians in Gaza, saving the lives of U.S. troops by avoiding regional escalation, and saving the lives of the Israeli hostages.

This is also the position of Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), an otherwise staunch supporter of Biden. “I have come to the conclusion that there needs to be an immediate pause to hostilities,” he said recently. “I would not condition it upon the release of the hostages. I hope that there is an agreement between Hamas and Israel with intermediaries that allows for the release of the hostages. But I think that the humanitarian situation on the ground is so dire today, with famine lurking, that Israel needs to stop military operations right now and focus on restoring order and combating famine.”

For the sake of the Israeli hostages, the civilians in Gaza, and American servicemen and women in the Middle East, Biden would be wise to listen to the Senator from Connecticut.

An Iranian flag hangs as smoke rises after what the Iranian media said was an Israeli strike on a building close to the Iranian embassy in Damascus, Syria April 1, 2024. REUTERS/Firas Makdesi

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