To apply pressure on Iran, the US must sever the ‘Shia Crescent’ in Syria

Dr. Muhammad Bakr Ghbeis

The United States has officially responded to a series of Iranian-aligned militia attacks on the Tower 22 base in Jordan, on Jan. 28. These strikes landed flat, failing to deter additional attacks on U.S. positions throughout the Middle East because they did not apply enough pressure on Iran. The United States needs to take the recent attack — and longer trend of Iranian actions in the Middle East — much more seriously, hitting the Axis where it hurts in Syria without causing a major regional war. 

Honoring a previous pledge, U.S. President Joe Biden announced the operation against Iranian-aligned militias in Iraq and Syria on Feb. 2, claiming the U.S. military targeted 85 positions. The strikes killed an unspecified number of militiamen. Additional strikes on Feb. 7 reportedly killed a Kataib Hezbollah commander in Baghdad — the organization and individual responsible for the Tower 22 attacks. 

These decisions are designed to deter additional attacks following the Tower 22 strike that killed three U.S. service members and harmed another 40 — the first such instance in over 165 strikes on U.S. positions since the Oct. 7. Tehran continues to deny responsibility, even as Iran’s stated goal is to pressure a U.S. withdrawal from the region through force. 

Thus, the Middle Eastern context continues to intensify, giving a clear signal that leaders must take additional steps to deter Iran and build regional stability. In this context, the Biden administration would be wise take a stronger stance by hitting Iran and the Axis of Resistance where it hurts, especially as the current approach is not working. 

The problem is that Team Biden’s strategy is too risk-averse. Indeed, recent attacks on Iran-aligned militias likely reflect an effort to mitigate domestic pressure in an election year as opposed to achieving sustainable deterrence levels. Yet this domestic pressure is necessary because ongoing half-deterrence measures will continue to produce the same outcome: Iranian escalation and severe risks to U.S. service members and interests. 

Efforts to weaken Iran’s standing in Syria can help sever the direct connection, from Lebanon to Iran, of Iran’s proxy forces, driving a wedge through the so-called “Shi’ite Crescent.” While Iran claims innocence with respect to this network, it is responsible for their actions because it funds and arms these groups. As such, Biden must consider more targets, including Iranian officials with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), and apply urgency in striking these targets before they can escape. 

This approach must be focused on Syria due to the increasingly difficult political dynamics in Iraq. Prime Minister Mohammed Shia’ Al Sudani faces internal pressure to expel U.S. forces because of ongoing U.S. strikes on Iranian militias in his country — the same militias that makeup his ruling political bloc.  

While the prime minister is supportive of the U.S. advisory mission, strikes on his country remind his people of the long-running and unpopular American presence in Iraq, raising sovereignty concerns that Iranian militias act upon to increase their strength and influence. This reality complicates attacks, as it is a major U.S. interest to retain a troop presence in Iraq that stabilizes the country, both through the counter-Islamic State mission and military advisory programs.  

Syria, however, does not carry such baggage. The Iranian militia system in the country is much more decentralized and unorganized, making targets softer and while constituting relatively low-hanging fruit. Syrian President Bashar Assad is no friend of the United States or humanity, and the Iranian presence in Syria is not popular among Syrians, meaning the political risks associated with Iraq do not exist in the same capacity.  

More importantly, Syria’s geographic location at the heart of the Middle East makes it a prime candidate for a broader U.S. deterrence strategy. By severing the Shia Crescent in Syria — stretching from Lebanon to Iraq and Iran — Biden can simultaneously hit the Islamic Republic in ways that actually deter it for relatively little to no cost.  

The alternative is concerning. Our local networks and some local reporting suggest Iran is expanding its military sites in Syria since Oct. 7, smuggling personnel and weapons among Syrian civilians and neighborhoods to protect its forces from U.S. and Israeli strikes at higher rates. It simultaneously transferred many high-ranking IRGC officials to more secure locations after Biden pledged to retaliate for the Tower 22 attack. This signals that Iran prioritizes an expanded influence in Syria and is concerned for the security of high-level officials implementing that policy through Iranian proxies. 

This reality is important in the broader context with the dynamics inside Syria evolving, as Russia lowers its footprint in the country. This is a long-running shift since the start of its war against Ukraine; Moscow believes Tehran is overstepping its hand and complicating the Syria context, reflecting an increasingly disruptive approach. This is causing the Russians to gradually cede ground to Iran in the country. Such a situation only increases Iranian confidence in Syria which, coupled with U.S. inaction, has long-term negative impacts on U.S. interests. 

As long as Tehran believes that it can hit U.S. forces without taking a serious shot back, it will continue to use expendable militiamen to harm American forces and interests as it expands in crucial geopolitical locations like Syria. Iran responds to strength — something U.S. officials would be wise to remember. Failure to do so risks U.S. lives and does not achieve U.S. interests in the Middle East. 

Muhammad Bakr Ghbeis, MD, is a Syrian-American cardiac critical care physician and instructor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. He is president of Citizens for a Secure and Safe America.