Drone strikes won't solve the Middle East's problems

The deaths of three US soldiers in Jordan will bring a response, but what the region needs is a way out of this spiralling conflict

US soldiers in Jordan in 2017. Sunday's drone attack is the first time American soldiers have died in the conflict that began on October 7. AFP
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Sunday’s drone strike on an American military outpost near the Jordan-Syria border, which claimed the lives of at least three US personnel and wounded dozens more, will be an emotional turning point for Washington. Although more than 27,000 people in the Middle East – the vast majority of them Palestinian civilians – have died since October 7, this is the first time the growing regional conflict has claimed the lives of American soldiers and this will generate understandable anger in the US.

US President Joe Biden has promised to “hold all those responsible to account at a time and in a manner our choosing”. If recent history is any guide, a series of limited strikes, perhaps against militia targets in Iraq or Syria, will be the likely American response. Nevertheless, vengeful retaliation that lacks a strategic awareness of the possible consequences risks perpetuating the region’s current deadly spiral.

Repeated retaliation is not what the world needs. The reality is that a deeper problem plagues today’s Middle East, the roots of which must be addressed in order for such attacks to be prevented in the future. Ending the occupation of Palestine is crucial to charting a path towards peace. The region finds itself divided between an ideologically driven Iran and those who reject its attempts to wield unearned influence through Tehran’s network of dangerous armed proxies that claim to act under the flag of “resistance” to the West and its allies.

This struggle for dominance is exacerbated by the war in Gaza, in which the US has played a dubious role owing to its political and military cover for an Israeli operation so egregious that it has led to the country facing accusations of genocide in the International Court of Justice. But even if US troops were to leave the Middle East tomorrow – and current talks involving the Iraqi government may lead to such a withdrawal from that country – it is extremely unlikely that Iran-aligned groups would recede from the picture as they continue to undercut state structures.

For now, some form of retaliation by the US can be expected. Not only did Sunday’s attack claim American lives, it also took place in Jordan, thereby setting a worrying new precedent that Washington will regard as requiring a robust response. Mr Biden is also facing the looming political challenge posed by Donald Trump who, as an American isolationist, will capitalise on the fact that under the current administration, the US is embroiled in conflicts from Ukraine and Gaza to Iraq and the Red Sea.

But Iran is also emmeshed in a dangerous game, heightening the risks faced by its own population in any escalating conflict. This situation is not helped by the continuing seizure of commercial ships in regional waters by Iranian forces, something that has prompted the US to strengthen its naval presence in the region.

There is no doubt that Washington is between a rock and a hard place. It is compelled to respond after losing troops but the risk of a misstep worsening regional tensions is high. Breaking the cycle of violence is the real challenge for all those in the Middle East – and there are many – who rightly regard this chronic threat of war as something that must be consigned to the past. A good first step would be by ending the war in Gaza, followed by a viable path to a two-state solution for Palestine and Israel to ensure long-term stability of the region.

Published: January 30, 2024, 3:00 AM