“ There was a question in the air for days, and today the answer came,” says Middle Eastern correspondent Daisy Mohr. She summarizes how the Middle East responds to the first military attack by the Americans since President Biden took office.
Last night, the US conducted air strikes on targets in eastern Syria, manned by pro-Iranian militias. Local sources in the Syrian-Iraqi border area speak of at least 17 deaths.
It was a retaliation campaign for a deadly missile attack on a military base in the northern Iraqi site of Irbil on February 15. That attack was then claimed by a pro-Iranian militia, one of the two targeted last night. Following the attack in Irbil, attacks took place on an American base near Baghdad and on the Green Zone, the part of the Iraqi capital where American and other foreign embassies lie.
“ The Middle East has been in a test phase over the past few weeks,” says Daisy Mohr. “All groups in the region wanted to know how much room for manoeuvre they will have now Biden is in power. Is he going to react differently than Trump? A reaction from the Americans was long in coming, was the feeling in this region.”
That does not mean that people are now cheering for another American bombing, adds Mohr. But some saw in the long silence of the American side a possible sign of weakness. Underneath, there is a fear that Biden will be more flexible in relation to the militias benefiting from Iran. He wants to restore ties with Iran and revive the so-called Iran-deal in order to reduce Tehrans nuclear ambitions.
This worries Tehrans rivals, such as Saudi Arabia and much of the Sunni world in other Arab countries, says Mohr. “The lack of an American military response to the bombing led led to much comment. People were afraid that Biden, in the eagerness to make a deal with Iran, would let the militias get away with it. But this is a clear signal from Biden.”
Some Arabic commentators therefore respond positively to the news, as seen on Twitter.
The signal from Biden is extra welcome to the Saudis, as relations with their ally the US are under pressure. During his election campaign, Biden criticized the warm ties his predecessor Trump had with the Saudis. Today it was announced that Biden called the Saudi king, pending a report on the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. That report describes the involvement of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the murder.
“ But the Americans will not simply put aside their important ally,” says Mohr. “It is also balancing for Biden because Saudi Arabia was not used to getting a lesson from Trump.”
Criticism of Biden
Criticism has also been heard after the American air strike. Today, Syria called the attack on its territory “cowardly,” a violation of international law and “a negative indicator of the policy of the new US administration.” The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned the bombing. Minister Lavrov called on Biden to discuss his position on Syria with Russia. The Iraqi army says it didnt share information with the Americans about the location of militia bases prior to last nights air strike.