Iran-backed Houthi rebels take part in a demonstration in Yemen against the United States and Israel.

Iran-backed Houthi rebels take part in a demonstration in Yemen against the United States and Israel. Osamah Yahya / picture alliance via Getty Images

After drone attack on U.S. forces in Jordan, Pentagon sees ‘escalation’ but not ‘widening’ of war

US nears an “inflection” point in deciding how to respond, says one expert.

The deadly drone attack on a base in Jordan hosting U.S. troops marks an “escalation” but not necessarily a “widening” of the Hamas-Israel war, Pentagon spokesperson Sabrina Singh said Monday.

“I wouldn't say that the conflict is spreading … But this attack was certainly escalatory,” Singh told reporters, adding that Iran “bears responsibility” for Sunday’s attack because of the decision to arm the groups that carried out the attack. But she stopped short of saying Iran played a direct role in planning, directing, or approving the strike.

The attack claimed the lives of three U.S. soldiers: Sgt. William Jerome Rivers of Carrollton, Ga.; Spc. Kennedy Ladon Sanders of Waycross, Ga.; and Spc. Breonna Alexsondria Moffett of Savannah, Ga., according to a Monday statement from U.S. Central Command. Thirty-four people were injured. 

Singh declined to attribute the attack to Kataib Hezbollah, an Iran-backed group that has claimed credit, but acknowledged the attack has the group’s “footprints.”

On Monday, The Wall Street Journal, citing unnamed officials, reported that U.S. forces on the base failed to stop the attack because they mistook the drone for a U.S. drone returning to the base at the same time. During her briefing, Singh said only that the prospect is “something that Central Command is looking into.”

She also acknowledged that the nearby troop garrison has been a target of multiple attacks, but no drone or missile had managed to break through the defenses until this weekend. 

“This attack was certainly escalatory in that it killed three service members, three of our U.S. service members,” she said. “We don’t want to see a … widening of a regional war … But we will respond at a time and place of our choosing.” 

And despite U.S. threats and direct strikes on Houthis and other Iran-backed groups in the region, attacks on U.S. positions continue, Singh acknowledged. 

While many Republicans have blamed the Biden administration for the attacks, saying the White House failed to adequately deter Iran, Singh sidestepped a question about those claims, instead saying, “We don't see Iran wanting to seek a war with the United States.”

Robert Murrett, a retired U.S. Navy three-star admiral who is now a professor at Syracuse University, said in a statement, “​​Difficult choices will be required in the days and weeks ahead as military operations continue a policy of strong deterrence without seeking widespread escalation that could harm our interests and those of our allies. While a retaliatory attack against proxy groups such as Kataib Hezbollah would not necessarily constitute a major inflection point, a decision to strike actual Iranian target(s) could do so.” 

The attack comes as the Biden administration appears to be making progress—or at least shifting tactics—in the conflict between Hamas and Israel, deploying CIA director William Burns to broker a potential ceasefire agreement that includes the release of Israeli hostages. 

“The US’s and the region’s security and stability interests are best served by doubling down on the diplomacy that has reportedly brought Israel and Hamas very close to a prisoner exchange and a two-month cease-fire,” Paul Salem, the president and CEO of the Middle East Institute said in a statement Monday. “The United States should consider its next moves from a strategic perspective, and not purely a reactive one.”