WASHINGTON – After 10 days of deliberation, President Biden ordered the Pentagon to launch air strikes on two targets inside Syria on February 26 when one of his aides gave an urgent warning about 30 minutes before the bombs were due to fall.
A woman and two children were in the yard at one of the sites, according to a field survey. With the F-15Es flying to the targets, Mr. Biden scratched the second target but ordered a hit on the first target moving forward.
The previously undisclosed episode that was the first thing Mr. Biden knew Use of force As supreme leader, this was an unexpected appeasement of a systematic approach to decision-making in which the Biden administration sought to balance competing interests in the Middle East.
The goal was to send a signal to Iran that the new White House team would respond to a dossier February 15 missile attack In northern Iraq, against the US-led coalition, they did not seek to escalate the confrontation with Tehran, senior administration officials said, describing the days before the strike in interviews with The Wall Street Journal.
To reinforce this point, a secret message was sent to Tehran after the US air strike, administration officials revealed, without providing details.
“We had a very coordinated diplomatic and military plan here,” said one administration official. “We have made sure that the Iranians know what our intention is.”
The other main objective was to avoid undermining the political position of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kazemi, who Washington considers a partner in the fight against the Islamic State group, and would have faced criticism at home if the attacks took place on Iraqi soil, officials said. Added.
From the start, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, the former commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East and the only senior member of the Biden government with military experience, reassured the president that he could take his time to decide how to respond militarily.
“You own the watch,” Mr. Austin advised Mr. Biden at the White House meeting immediately after the attack in Erbil, according to a second administrative official who participated in the session.
Throughout the deliberations, the officials said, they sought to strike a bureaucratic balance. The goal was to ensure that all interagency agencies are fully involved while avoiding both the lengthy deliberations that sometimes occurred during the Obama administration and the hasty decisions by the president and smaller groups of aides that often occurred. During the Trump administration.
The second official said, “We knew that this was the first time that we had taken a decision like this and that we would be subject to a lot of scrutiny.”
Some scrutiny has come from Congress. Senators Tim Kane (D., Virginia) and Todd Young (R., Indiana), who have long argued that the legal basis for US military power in the Middle East is outdated, introduced legislation this week to restrict presidential powers.
Other lawmakers, including Senator Mark Warner (Dr., Virginia), who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, defended Biden’s decision while saying that Congress should have received greater advance notice. Mr. Warner said he learned of the strike 15 minutes before the attack.
Biden sent a letter to Congress the next day explaining that the strike was necessary to defend US forces, and the White House said this week that it was still briefing lawmakers and aides. “We are happy to continue those talks,” a White House official said.
At the end of the administration’s deliberations last week, Biden chose the more conservative option: strikes that avoided Iraqi soil and were timed, in the middle of the night, to minimize any losses. Pentagon officials later said that a militia fighter was killed and two wounded.
At the same time, the Biden administration is taking a more comprehensive view of when to take military action, without setting a specific threshold. previous president
It has often been pointed out that the so-called red line of military action is the death of an American abroad. Biden administration officials said they do not want the Iranians to believe that the attacks on the US-led coalition are tolerable as long as no Americans are killed.
“We keep a degree of flexibility for ourselves,” said the second official in the administration.
With the military strike on Friday, US officials believe they have sent a clear message to Tehran and its proxies stationed in Iraq to stop the attacks. But wednesday A militia fired at least 10 missiles at the sprawling Al-Asad Air Base In western Iraq. Officials said a contractor suffered a heart attack and died while in a shelter during the attack.
Since taking office in January, White House officials have expected the Biden administration to be tested by Iranian-sponsored Shiite militia groups in the region.
The US forces returned to Iraq to advise the Iraqi forces after the Islamic State took control of Mosul in June 2014.
After destroying the alleged ISIS caliphate and imposing the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign to try to roll back Iran’s nuclear program, in 2019 an Iranian-backed militia bombed a base where US and coalition forces were deployed, killing an American contractor.
That and fear of future attacks prompted the Trump administration to launch a series of air strikes in Syria and Iraq, including one in Baghdad. The Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani was killed.
However, missile attacks continued in Iraq, including one in March 2020 on Camp Taji Two American soldiers and a British soldier were killed, Which led to an American retaliatory strike two days later.
On February 15, militants targeted Erbil airport in northern Iraq with more than 12 ammunition, some of which landed in living quarters. A Pentagon official said the attack killed a foreign contractor and wounded seven Americans, including a US service member.
The next day, Mr. Austin and General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, went to the Oval Office when Mr. Biden received his daily intelligence report. Mr. Austin said there was no need to respond immediately and that Mr. Biden could take the time to calculate what action to take.
On February 18, Deputy National Security Adviser Jonathan Viner chaired a meeting of cabinet officials, including Military Intelligence officials and the US ambassador to Baghdad, who participated by videoconference. The next day, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan held a “Officials Meeting” of senior officials.
On February 20, four missiles targeted the Balad Air Base in Iraq. There were no US forces stationed there, but the facility hosts hundreds of Western contractors. One American was injured, which reinforced the growing recognition within the administration that there would be some form of military response.
Over the next two days, options for striking targets in Iraq and Syria were improved. On February 23, Mr. Biden met with senior officials in the Oval Office, including Mr. Austin, General Millie, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, Mr. Sullivan, Mr. Fenner, and Brett McGurk, the National Security Council’s top official at the National Security Council. Middle east.
Mr. Biden called the Iraqi Prime Minister the same day to discuss the protection of American personnel and Washington’s willingness to assist in the Iraqi investigation into the Erbil attack.
American officials decided there was less risk to their Iraqi partners by striking inside Syria, as militias linked to the Erbil strike also operated in easily observable locations near the Syria-Iraq border.
On the morning of February 25, Mr. Biden and senior officials met in the operating room for about an hour. Mr. Austin, who was traveling in California, participated in the discussion remotely.
Mr. Biden received the final options and risk assessments, and discussed potential diplomatic implications, including letters to Iran. There was a discussion about the number of targets to hit. Mr. Biden decided to focus on the two goals in Syria, the most conservative of the set of options, and the strike was determined for that night.
With the F-15Es in the air, information came that women and children had been spotted on the second target.
It was 30 minutes before the attack, and Mr. Sullivan passed the intelligence on to the President. Biden had to quickly decide whether to cancel the blow or go ahead with one goal. Mr. Austin recommended hitting one goal. At around 1:30 a.m. Syrian time, the attack took place.
Militant Shiite groups issued a statement saying they were not surprised by the strike and downplayed its impact. Iran over the weekend condemned the strike, calling it illegal.
The day after the strike, Mr. Biden publicly repeated the message the United States had secretly sent to Tehran. You cannot act with impunity. Be careful. “
The period leading up to the Biden administration’s strike
- February 15: Iranian-backed militias attack Erbil airport, killing a contractor and wounding at least seven Americans.
- February 16: President Biden met with Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and a National Security Council team.
- February 17: Intelligence agencies assess the Iranian-backed militia that carried out the attack. The Pentagon is working on possible military responses.
- February 18: Deputy National Security Adviser Jonathan Viner chairs a House Committee meeting on possible options.
- February 19: National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan chairs a Principles Committee meeting to review options.
- February 20: At least four missiles hit the Balad Air Base, wounding at least one US contractor.
- February 20-22: US officials sharpen options.
- February 23: Mr. Biden holds a meeting in the Oval Office with Mr. Austin, General Millie, Ms. Haines and the NSC team to review options.
- February 23: Mr. Biden calls Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kazemi. At least one missile targets the Green Zone in Baghdad, where the US embassy is located. The Pentagon is finalizing options.
- February 24: Top officials agree on a conference call on Biden’s recommendations. Mr. Wiener’s House of Representatives has a phone call about the options and the plan to notify the Allies.
- February 25: Mr. Biden decides on the options in a meeting in the operating room with Mrs. Harris and other senior officials. Allies are notified. Some lawmakers were notified shortly before the attack. Post-strike message is sent to Iran.
Write to Gordon Lubold at Gordon.Lubold@wsj.com, Michael R. Gordon at firstname.lastname@example.org and Nancy A. Youssef at email@example.com
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