Biden risks deepening Middle East conflict by pressuring military to respond to deadly attack

(CNN) — The death of three US service members in a drone strike on Sunday pushed the United States deeper into the Middle East conflict and gave new urgency to efforts to secure the release of hostages in Gaza in exchange for an end to prolonged hostilities. And Hamas.

The confluence of interconnected events – high-profile hostage negotiations in France were underway at the same time US officials were grappling with military deaths in Jordan – led to one of the most charged moments since violence erupted following a Hamas terrorist attack in October became. 7.

Now, Washington and Middle East leaders are considering options that could significantly change the situation, putting thousands of lives and the future of the region at risk.

US President Joe Biden, who has vowed to respond to drone attacks “in a timely manner and in a manner of our choice”, faces a decision on the scale of US retaliation, with consequences both in the region and at home. Will be. Tough fight for re-election.

In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is under heavy pressure to reach an agreement that would secure the return of more than 100 hostages remaining inside Gaza, a move that would require a prolonged pause in Israel’s campaign against Hamas .

And in Tehran, leaders must determine whether a strategy to destabilize the region through proxy groups is bringing them closer to direct confrontation with the United States, a move that U.S. officials say Iran would not want. Wants and the country has made every possible effort. To avoid.

How each side acts in the coming days could significantly change the course of the war between Israel and Hamas and the broader tensions it has caused in the Middle East. These issues have been the subject of hours of intense Situation Room discussions and high-level talks between the leaders.

“This is an alarming increase. We try to ensure that this conflict does not escalate further. It gets you that much closer to that point,” Washington state Rep. Adam Smith, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said of the drone strikes in Jordan that injured more than 30 US soldiers in addition to the deaths. . “It is imperative that the United States respond and find a way to stop these attacks, and I know the President is working on that.”

Smith said the prospects for an escalating war cannot be separated from the situation in Gaza, where Israel’s military campaign has killed more than 26,000 people, according to the health ministry, and violence has increased across the region.

“What happens in Gaza is important,” Smith said. “The conflict in Gaza strengthens Iran at this time. And that’s bad for us, bad for Israel, bad for the Arab states, bad for the world. Therefore, finding its solution is also an important part of this challenge.

Speaking in the banquet hall of a Baptist church in South Carolina hours after the attacks, Biden left no doubt about his broader intentions: “We will respond,” he said before holding a moment of silence for dead American service members. Said after invoking.

However, what that response will be is still being determined. There have been calls within the White House to prevent the conflict from escalating, and strong opposition to direct involvement in a regional war against Iran.

Biden was already under pressure to increase the scale of the American counterattack. On Sunday, Republicans called on Biden to immediately attack targets inside Iran, which the United States accuses of being behind allied groups attacking US troops in Iraq and Syria.

Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina urged the administration to “strike critical targets inside Iran, not only as retaliation for the killing of our military, but also as a deterrent against future aggression.” “The only thing the Iranian regime understands is the use of force.”

For his part, Texas Senator John Cornyn was more direct: “Aim for Tehran,” he wrote in X.

For Biden, whose handling of the Gaza conflict has already caused unrest on the political left as he begins his re-election campaign, the choice of how to respond will be politically complex.

US officials have said they have used covert means to send a message to Iran and its proxies that attacks on US troops must stop. However, those efforts appeared to do little to stop drone strikes, and officials inside the White House have long feared they would ultimately lead to deaths.

Now that that fear has become reality, officials said the president is determined to respond forcefully. In a series of briefings Sunday with top members of his national security team, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and national security adviser Jake Sullivan, Biden discussed the attacks and possible US responses.

At the same time, US officials hope they are getting closer to reaching a hostage agreement that will include a long-term pause in the fighting in Gaza and that they hope will reduce tensions in the region.

US officials believe a prolonged cessation of fighting could allow room for more humanitarian aid to flow into Gaza, as well as continued discussions about the future of Israel’s military campaign against Hamas.

Biden sent CIA Director Bill Burns to Paris on Sunday to discuss a plan that would include a two-month suspension of the war along with the gradual release of all remaining hostages in Gaza, a proposal that, if accepted, would Could have a significant impact. The future of conflict.

The Israeli Prime Minister’s office later described the talks as “constructive” but said “significant shortcomings” remained. According to the office announcement, the parties “will continue to discuss in additional mutual meetings to be held this week.”

Qatar’s prime minister is expected to visit Washington this week as discussions intensify, a diplomatic source told CNN. Qatar has acted as a key mediator in negotiations with Hamas.

Sunday’s meeting, which included Burns and his intelligence counterparts from Qatar’s prime minister as well as Israel and Egypt, was a key moment as talks moved closer to an agreement. US officials said they are extremely optimistic that negotiations are moving in the right direction and an agreement can be reached soon.

The White House on January 26, 2024. Julia Nickhinson/Reuters

As the deaths of three US soldiers raise fears of a wider regional war, US officials said it is more important now to reach an agreement that can ease tensions.

“This loss and the growing instability across the Middle East make it even clearer why those negotiating a new pause in the fighting in Gaza and the return of hostages must act urgently,” Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., said. X and I said. Former CIA analyst.

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