Top of mind will be the immediate threat to American forces in the region from a recent increase in attacks in Iraq and Syria, as well as on commercial shipping in the Red Sea that put U.S. warships at risk. Calls for the Biden administration to respond more forcefully to the attacks have grown in recent weeks, with current and former officials expressing frustration that the Pentagon’s actions are not deterring further violence.
Iran-backed militia groups have launched drones and rockets at U.S. positions in Iraq and Syria 94 times since Oct. 17, including nine on Friday, according to a Defense Department official, who was granted anonymity to discuss sensitive operational issues. At least 66 U.S. service members have sustained minor injuries, including at least 19 who were diagnosed with traumatic brain injury.
U.S. forces have responded multiple times to the attacks, including with precision airstrikes against facilities linked to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and affiliated groups in Syria. The U.S. also sent an AC-130J gunship to hit the proxy forces last month and separately took out five militants who were preparing to launch a drone strike in Iraq.
But those strikes have not stopped further attacks.
Meanwhile, Houthi rebels, who are based in Yemen and funded by Tehran, have increased strikes on international shipping in the Red Sea, increasingly drawing in U.S. warships. Many — but not all — of the civilian ships targeted were either owned or operated by Israel or Israeli companies, or crewed by Israelis.
Most recently on Wednesday, the destroyer USS Mason shot down a drone headed for the ship while it was responding to reports that a commercial oil tanker was under assault by suspected Houthi forces, according to the official.
“We’re not deterring anybody right now,” retired Vice Adm. John Miller, the former commander of naval forces in the Middle East, told POLITICO recently.
The Biden administration is wary of responding militarily to those attacks in an effort to avoid provoking Iran, which backs Hamas, the Houthis and Hezbollah in Lebanon, POLITICO reported last week.
“Iran respects the use of force — they know and understand it,” retired Gen. Frank McKenzie, the former head of U.S. Central Command, said in an interview last week. “They have always, always had a very high regard for our capability; they have always doubted our will to employ it.”
Although the administration has not ruled out responding militarily, the main focus for now is the formation of an international maritime task force to counter the Houthi attacks. The framework for that group is already in place, through Combined Task Force 153, a 39-nation partnership headquartered in Bahrain and focused on countering piracy and terrorism in the Red Sea, Bab el-Mandeb waterway and Gulf of Aden. Participants include Gulf nations, such as Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia, as well as European and Pacific partners.
The existing framework is “a coalition of the willing and it does not prescribe a specific level of participation from any member nation,” Ryder said last week. The U.S. is in talks with partners about their participation in an effort to specifically counter the Houthis’ recent aggression, he said.
“We are definitely looking to take action here,” Ryder said. “This is an international problem that requires an international solution.”
However, the administration has not announced which partners will participate. Some may balk at an effort that could be perceived as protecting Israeli shipping as Israel continues bombarding Gaza. Pressure has increased on the U.S. to do more to urge Israel to protect civilians as the death toll rises.
And there are signs President Joe Biden is taking notice. He warned donors at a Tuesday fundraiser that Israel could be losing international support because of its “indiscriminate bombing” of Gaza.
As Biden appears to take a tougher stance, Austin will likely use the trip to press his Israeli counterpart to do more to protect innocent lives and create evacuation routes for civilians to move out of harm’s way, as he has in the past. Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, is also headed to Israel on Thursday.