At least 22 dead as Joe Biden launches first airstrikes of his presidency

The United States launched airstrikes in Syria on Thursday, targeting facilities used by Iranian-backed militia groups. Credit: AP

President Joe Biden has just taken his first offensive military action as commander-in chief.

Overnight, US airstrikes were carried out in eastern Syria, just a short distance from the Iraqi border.

Local reports suggest that as many as 22 people were killed in the bombing - the first lives that Biden is known to have taken as commander-in-chief.For all his support from the political left during the election campaign, the missile attack is a reminder that Biden is a centrist, traditional president who will deploy both military force and diplomatic power as he re-engages America in the Middle East.The Biden White House is trying to show that its red lines will be enforced - by bombs if necessary.

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden board Air Force One. Credit: AP

Many of Biden’s advisers judge that the biggest foreign policy mistake of the Obama presidency was to talk tough but fail to follow through, emboldening hostile regimes and militias. The Pentagon spokesman called the attack proportionate. “The operation sends an unambiguous message: President Biden will act to protect American and coalition personnel. At the same time, we have acted in a deliberate manner that aims to de-escalate the overall situation in eastern Syria and Iraq.”We will soon see if “de-escalation” has indeed been achieved.  Military action is rarely so simple.Notably, the attack has received support from Republicans, but not by all Democrats. Some are already expressing their alarm at Biden’s aggressive action. One Congresswoman, Ilhan Omar, is trolling the White House spokeswoman with a two word tweet that recalls a previous comment by Jen Psaki. 

The target of the attack was an obscure militia known as the Guardian of the Blood brigades, apparently armed by Tehran, that was conducting border smuggling operations.Even if the bombs landed on Syrian soil, and those killed were likely to be Iraqi, the real message was being sent to Iran.

It was designed to make clear that Joe Biden would deploy lethal force if necessary against threats to US interests in the Middle East.

John Kirby, Pentagon spokesperson. Credit: AP

Paradoxically, something else is clear from the scale of the attack: That America wants to do a diplomatic deal with Iran.That's because this was a highly specific and limited operation, calibrated to catch Tehran's attention but not so large that Iranian leaders will feel the need to retaliate.Seven US bombs were dropped on a small cluster of buildings, and Biden is reported to have ruled out a broader range of strikes. 

It follows an attack by the militia that wounded American contractors in Erbil.US officials will hope it still leaves intact the idea that Iran might come back into compliance with the Iran nuclear deal.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Credit: AP

Next Up - a big Saudi DecisionPresident Biden has another tough decision to make in the Middle East, this time against Iran's greatest ideological foe and regional rival, Saudi Arabia.Biden is poised to order the public release of an intelligence report on the grisly murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. It will firmly point the finger at Saudi's all-powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known by his initials MBS. The White House must decide whether it wants to just isolate MBS or to really punish him.

Joe Biden has promised to release the information on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Credit: AP

Will Biden, for example, ban MBS and his closest advisers from travel to the US, and even freeze some of his vast assets?On Thursday night, he spoke to the elderly Saudi leader, King Salman, notably keeping MBS out of the conversation.

Biden has already made clear that he opposes Saudi's war in Yemen and that he will make human rights in the kingdom a far greater priority than his predecessor, Donald Trump.

Trump not only backed MBS to the hilt, but quickly moved on from the Khashoggi murder and made arms sales his key national security objective.So Biden is taking on two of the Middle East's toughest challenges simultaneously, trying to deal with Tehran and Riyadh, one a long-standing US foe, the other a close American ally. The goal is to force both to change their conduct. But it's a narrow path.If the White House miscalculates, it will not only alienate Saudi's key ruler but also find itself in an escalating series of strikes on Iranian-backed militias.