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U.S. Launches Strikes In Iraq And Syria Hitting Iran-Backed Militias; Thousands Protest In Tel Aviv Against Israeli Government; U.S. And U.K. Conduct Additional Strikes Against Houthi Targets In Yemen. Aired 4-5p ET

Aired February 03, 2024 - 16:00   ET




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ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN ANCHOR: Powerful U.S. response in the Middle East as President Joe Biden vows to send a clear and forceful message to Iran-backed militias following that deadly drone attack last weekend on U.S. service members in Jordan. The U.S. now says it hit 85 targets linked to Iranian backed proxy groups in both Iraq and Syria overnight. Iraqi officials claim the blast killed 16 people including civilians.

The U.S. hopes to destroy the militant's capabilities or at least degrade them where they can, while avoiding a broader conflict. But Iran now saying the U.S. has made a strategic mistake, warning that the strikes could fuel more conflict in the Middle East. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said that this is just the beginning. Meanwhile, the U.S. Central Command says it struck six Houthi cruise missiles, that's in Yemen. It happened earlier today as the Iran backed rebel group continues to launch attacks against shipping in the Red Sea.

CNN's Oren Liebermann is live at the Pentagon with the latest.

So, Oren, what are you learning about this response last night in Iraq and Syria?

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Alex, you can see here the needle that the U.S. is trying to thread here, not striking Iran directly but trying to send a message to Iran's leadership by going after some of its most powerful proxies and the militias it backs in the region, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the affiliated groups in Iraq and Syria.

Four strikes in Syria, three more in Iraq carried out by U.S. forces including what you see right there. That's a B-1 bomber taking off from the U.S. on its way all the way across the Atlantic to carry out those strikes in the Middle East and take part in this operation. That in and of itself a message. These strikes, 85 targets or more than 85 targets across seven different sites in Iraq and Syria.

The first time we have seen the U.S. strike both in the same evening over the course of the past few months here as the U.S. goes after command-and-control centers, intelligence centers, the weapons that are used to attack U.S. forces. So the U.S. very much trying to not only disrupt the ability of these groups to attack U.S. forces but also to try to send the message to Iran's leadership that to whatever extent it can it has to at least try and pull back these forces and these militias from attacking especially after one week ago that drone stroke that killed three U.S. service members and wounded scores more in Jordan here.

The question, of course, how does this play out from here, and that's something the U.S. is watching very closely after these much broader strikes than what we've seen in the past. But Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and President Joe Biden promising there is more to come and this is just the start of the response. And it's not just in Iraq and Syria. We are of course seeing continued U.S. strikes on Houthi capabilities in Yemen. So different challenges in different spheres for the U.S. This all links back to Iran.

MARQUARDT: Separate but as you say all so very connected.

Oren Liebermann, at the Pentagon, thank you so much for your reporting.

Let's turn now to CNN's international diplomatic editor Nic Robertson. He is live for us in Tel Aviv.

So, Nic, to that point, the Biden administration is keen to frame this as Iranian antagonism rather than tying it back to the war in Gaza. So how does what we've seen play out in the past few hours really play into this increasingly complex web of efforts to lower the heat all across the region?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Yes, I think there's many ways to look at it, Alex. And perhaps a simple way is to look at Jordan. You know, a week and a half ago Jordan was not in the frame really to be drawn in to the -- you know, the wider concerns about escalation. But all that changed when that Iran-backed proxy chose to strike U.S. troops in Jordan.

They could have chosen to strike U.S. troops in Iraq or in Syria but they chose Jordan which essentially an Iranian proxy putting Jordan on the map, as hosting U.S. troops knowing that there's a large percentage of the population in Jordan who are Palestinians, who are angry, enraged in some cases about what Israel is doing in Gaza. They think the United States supports Israel.


So from an Iranian perspective stoking problems and lighting a fire in Jordan. So when that attack took place, Jordan very quickly, initially had said, well, the attack was in Syria, U.S. troops in Syria not Jordan. That shows a level of sensitivity. And we saw that level of sensitivity again now just today whereby there were reports that Jordan was supporting the United States in these attacks -- these counterattacks of the seven different sites in Syria and Iraq.

Very quickly the Jordanians responded again by saying actually we're not involved in these airstrikes in Iran, but they didn't mention Syria. That's because Jordan, very quietly, since the beginning of this year, has been targeting sites inside Syria. Sites it says are associated with making drugs from which the Iranians profit and those drugs are shipped through Jordan through the rest of the Middle East.

And the Jordanians have come to the conclusion that the Iranians are trying to destabilize Jordan. So you can look at this puzzle and see how Iran is essentially trying to draw Jordan into the instability and the instability comes through people's reactions on the streets and potential violence and problems for the monarchy and the government in Jordan.

And that's just one tiny example of what's happening. So this instability that Iran pushes it could come on the northern border of Israel next. They could choose to use Hezbollah to show their anger at the strikes on their compatriots in Iraq and Syria. So yes, the White House walks on eggshells trying to avoid an escalation. But it comes back to Iran and where do they try to turn up the heat next.

MARQUARDT: Yes. So important to look at all of these incidents and realize they're not isolated, and zoom out to get the fuller picture, which you just broke down so well for us.

Nic, this is also taking place as we've seen thousands gathering in Tel Aviv for protests against the Netanyahu government, demanding that his government do more to bring those remaining hostages inside Gaza back home. There are more than 100 of them. What's the latest on that front?

ROBERTSON: Yes, I think each weekend we're seeing more and more people, several thousand possibly, according to the organizers, maybe as many as 10,000 today, coming out on the streets, protesting about the government, saying that the government is not caring for the interest of Israelis, that they're not -- that they haven't essentially been taking care of the country's interests and that's partly how the war in Gaza precipitated.

But also saying that they want to have elections and saying that the elections should be called now and the elections could happen in about three months' time. I think this growing number of people to really get enough momentum it's going to have to build from 10,000, perhaps as it is now, well over 100. Perhaps 200,000 as the country witnessed during the height of the constitutional change protests that were happening late last year, so -- or earlier on last year.

So I think, you know, this is beginning -- it hasn't reached critical mass but it's definitely signaling something that is a growing concern here that this government needs to change.

MARQUARDT: Yes. So much anger and distress over the fact that those hostages are still being held.

Nic Robertson, in Tel Aviv, thank you so much.

For more analysis on this I want to bring in our panel of experts. CNN military analyst and retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Cedric Leighton and CNN national security analyst who was the former deputy director of National Intelligence Beth Sanner.

Thank you both for joining me.

Cedric, I want to start with you. These strikes in Iraq and Syria last night, these are -- this is an area that the U.S. has hit over the past few months in response to the more than 160 militia attacks on U.S. troops. So how was last night different?

COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Yes, I think the main thing, Alex, is that we used a different weapons system as part of this package that went after these targets and that weapons system, of course, being the B-1 bomber. A bomber that is versatile enough not only can it travel intercontinentally but it can also potentially be used against targets like Iran itself, so it was a message to the Iranians, and in that sense I think it was different from the previous engagements that we've had with these groups.

And it was more intense, than the attacks that we've -- the counterattacks that we've engaged in over the past few months. The other thing is it was much more concentrated in moment in time than those other attacks. And you see as we look at the map, where it goes from Deir ez-Zor all the way down to Al-Qaim. That's the Euphrates River Valley and that is a key area for trans-shipment of all kinds of goods for these Iranian proxy militias.

It's also a very important place for them to reconstitute, and it's an area where they can actually stop that kind of reconstitution if these strikes are more sustained than they currently have been.


MARQUARDT: Cedric, what is the message that the Pentagon is trying to send when you're using a B-1 bomber flying from Texas, thousands of miles across the ocean to drop bombs rather than using fighter jets that we've seen before that are already in the Middle East?

LEIGHTON: Yes. I shows that the capacity of the U.S. is that we can deploy from the continental United States a lethal might to an area in the Middle East of our own choosing. And that message means that, yes, we have assets in the Middle East but if you kick us out of the Middle East we are still going to be able to reach out and touch you. And that, in essence, is what the U.S. is trying to tell the Iranians.

MARQUARDT: And, Beth, there were five days between the deaths of those three American service members in Jordan and then the U.S. response. And we saw reports that Iran was moving people and assets out of the area in anticipation of these strikes. So do you think that the U.S. appropriately sent the message that it wants to, to essentially tell Iran and these militia groups to stop messing around?

BETH SANNER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: You know, I think it's a hard -- a hard thing for us to know where we are and not in the planning room to understand what the basis of that decision was. But, you know, the bottom line is that in the end the strikes didn't kill, you know, senior IRGC Quds Force fighters, leaders, officers on the ground. So that's just a fact. And so, you know, Iran probably at this point -- let's remember this is step one we are hearing.

So but at this point does not feel like it's been hit very hard. That said they're not making any huge deal out of this either. So they're not rattling sabers to escalate either. I think we're just going to have to see what's next.

MARQUARDT: But, Beth, while I -- the Pentagon said that they did design these plans knowing that there would be casualties. It sounds like casualties were part of that planning.

SANNER: There were.

MARQUARDT: This was obviously in response to a situation in which the U.S. also lost service members. But how careful would the U.S. have been about choosing targets where there might have been more senior leaders that would have caused this -- that could cause this to escalate faster?

SANNER: Well, I mean, I don't think we were trying to avoid hitting IRGC seniors. If that was the case, that was a mistake. But I think it's just that we didn't have that choice because weather delays apparently pushed this timing back and also just the planning cycle. And so round one means that, you know, there just aren't a lot of targets that have that opportunity of hitting senior people on the ground.

That doesn't mean that round two or four or six will be the same. And, you know, I think that, for example, we know from reporting that there are IRGC officials in Yemen helping plan and support the Houthis. We also know that there is a spy ship in the Red Sea that is helping the Houthis target shipping there. So, you know, there are other opportunities out there that are maybe

not hiding or are harder to hide that are going to be on the docket potentially for future strikes. But this first one that's just kind of a matter of, you know, the way it worked out.

MARQUARDT: And it does come back to striking that balance. We were on all three of us last night with Senator Dan Sullivan from Alaska who said we should or the U.S. should be hitting that Iranian ship in the Red Sea, for example. Certainly the Biden administration worried that that would be a truly escalatory move.

But, Colonel, I'd like you to weigh in on this. When Central Command chooses the targets. First, give us your sense of how damaging the strikes could have been on what we know was hit last night and then going forward, in these future waves and the administration has said that there will be more phases to this. How does central command choose what to hit without crossing the line that Iran would potentially feel it really needs to respond to in a way that would take things up a notch?

LEIGHTON: Yes. They really get a lot of guidance at Central Command from the Pentagon itself and, of course from the White House. But what they're really doing, Alex, is they're looking at the targets that they think will be most effective without crossing those lines that you talk about. So when you pick something to hit, you're looking at, you know, potentially let's say a command-and-control node or a missile launch facility.

And when you look at those targets you see, is that a target that if you hit it, will it -- will there be collateral damage? Will there be other secondary effects that are undesirable or if there are secondary effects, are those secondary effects that can be used for our purposes that can have a good military impact on our efforts?


And in those cases what they end up doing is they end up not only looking at the different target sets but they also want to make sure that every single target is part of a package that makes sense. In other words, if I hit a command-and-control node at a lower echelon, should I also hit one at a higher echelon or in a neighboring town?

And those are the kinds of things that they will go through, and if they need to once the battle damage assessment comes in, if they need to restrike that target, then they will do so in a second, third, or fourth wave. And that's the kind of thing that goes on when it comes to planning these strikes.

MARQUARDT: And they may want to restrike those targets because as we were saying these groups could have pulled things out in anticipation of these strikes. Very important to remind our viewers that that cluster of strikes in eastern Syria, western Iraq, that's a long way from that border with Iran. So they were taking a lot of care to not strike anywhere near Iranian territory.

Colonel Cedric Leighton, Beth Sanner, we have to leave it there. Thank you both so much.

LEIGHTON: You bet.

SANNER: Thank you.

MARQUARDT: And we will continue to follow this developing story in the CNN NEWSROOM. But, ahead, the polls are open in South Carolina for the first in the nation Democratic primary. What today could reveal about how energized Democrats and black voters are for Biden's campaign as it heads into this election season. We'll be discussing that next. Stay with us.



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

MARQUARDT: And we have this breaking news just in. The U.S. has just launched a second round of airstrikes against the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen. This follows Friday strikes against dozens of targets in Iraq and Syria.

CNN's Oren Liebermann is back with us from the Pentagon.

So, Oren, what do we know against these strikes against the Houthis?

LIEBERMANN: Right now we know according to two U.S. officials that the U.S. has carried out strikes on at least 10 different locations in Yemen going after dozens of Houthi targets at those locations. According to one of those officials, the targets include an underground weapons storage facility, command-and-control centers, as well as other sorts and types of weapons that the Houthis have used to target international shipping lanes.

That official also tells CNN that the U.K. also took part in these strikes. That's significant. It would be the third time that the U.S. and the U.K. have carried out joint strikes against Houthi targets in Yemen. Now of course this comes one day after broad U.S. strikes against Iranian backed militias and Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Iraq and Syria. But we should make a distinction here.

These strikes in Yemen are because of Houthi attacks on international shipping lanes while the strikes in Iraq and Syria, of which we expect more at some point based on promises and statements made by President Joe Biden and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, those are a result of ongoing Iranian backed militia s attacking U.S. forces in the region, including of course last weekend's attack on Sunday that killed three U.S. service members and wounded scores more.

You see the link to Iran in both of these cases but the rationale behind them still lightly different. Still, these U.S. and U.K. strikes on Houthi targets in Yemen again a broad reminder of not only of the threat in the region, the ongoing attacks on international shipping, and U.S. naval forces in the region, but also trying to send that message to Iran and its proxies that if the attacks continue, so too will the U.S. strikes.

Now, we'll learn more about a battle damage assessment. Effectively how effective were these strikes against Houthi targets sometime I suspect in the next few hours here. Generally when there is a U.S. and U.K. strike we do get a statement. So we do expect that at some point. But it is noteworthy how close these are together. On consecutive days here, we have seen the U.S. go after in a very powerful and broad way, Iranian backed militias in Iraq and Syria and now seeing the U.S. once again in a broad and powerful way go after Houthi forces in Yemen.

So we will wait to learn more, Alex, and we will certainly keep you posted as we get more information here.

MARQUARDT: Oren, in terms of the broader global impact, this is arguably the front that is going to affect more people around the world because you do have 15 percent of global commercial shipping going through the Red Sea. That's why it was so important. The U.S. felt, to gather this coalition of nations to both undertake a mission to escort these ships through the Red Sea, but also to join up with allies, in this case the U.K., as you say, to carry out these strikes, that this is an international response as opposed to what you and I were just talking about, which is in Iraq and Syria.

I want to ask you about the twin goal that the U.S. has here in terms of deterring the Houthis and degrading their capabilities. Give us some context about what has been happening over the past few weeks because when these strikes started it was a very big deal. It was the same question of whether they would be deterred and it seems like they are not being deterred. They continue to carry out attacks against these ships.

So where does it -- where do things stand in terms of the efforts to degrade their capabilities?

LIEBERMANN: And you're absolutely right, the Houthis and Iranian backed rebel group in Yemen have vowed to continue these attacks. In that case the U.S.'s goal here is essentially try to destroy as much or a significant amount of their weaponry as possible, and that includes antiship ballistic missiles, anti-cruise missiles, and drones.

And in fact over the course of the last 24, 36 hours, we have seen the U.S. not only shoot drones out of the sky launched by the Houthis but also go after those drones before they have launched.


That's part of the goal here, try to prevent them from having the capability to be able to target international shipping. One of the largest attacks or barrages we saw launched from the Houthis was 21 separate projectiles. And that included missiles and drones. Since then, and that was several weeks ago, we have not seen the Houthis launch such a large attack. Still the attacks, even if smaller, have continued and we have seen very much how dangerous they can be.

They have hit U.S. owned or operated vessels. They set an oil tanker or rather a chemical tanker on fire just a few days ago. That tanker in the Gulf of Aiden issued a distress call that a U.S. destroyer and other ships responded to. And just this past week we saw one of these cruise missiles come to within one mile of a U.S. destroyer that ended up having to shoot it down with essentially what is one of its last lines of defense, what's known as the closing weapons system.

So the threat there continues. The U.S., or rather Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in his first press briefing this month or rather earlier this week was pressed on, look, there clearly isn't a deterrent factor that's stopping the Houthis from attacking so what's the purpose of U.S. action here? And to that he said the U.S. will not stand for these ongoing attacks on international shipping lanes.

Not only because of the freedom of navigation which is afforded at every nation and every commercial shipping company, but also because, as you point out, Alex and where we started this question, this is having a profound effect on the global economy because this is one of the world's most critical waterways and some of the world's largest shipping companies have had to avoid the Red Sea and go all the way around Africa because of these Houthi attacks.

MARQUARDT: Oren Liebermann, stay with us. We have Cedric Leighton and Beth Sanner back with us.

Cedric, when you hear the list, you know, this number of targets that were struck, I want to ask you the same question. To what extent do you think the U.S. and its allies in this coalition have been successful at degrading what are pretty formidable capabilities that the Houthis have, whether it's drones or cruise and ballistic missiles?

LEIGHTON: Well, one of the key things, Alex, is that when you look at the Houthi structure it's actually a very resilient command and control and the logistical structure that they have, and it's been owned by years of warfare not only within Yemen as part of the Yemeni civil war, but also with Saudi Arabia. So these are experienced fighters.

You know, when it comes to the way in which the U.S. and U.K. have struck these targets, they've been able to take out targets, they've been able to take out missiles as they're about ready to be launched at shipping. So that's a very good indication that there's real-time intelligence that is being used to go after these targets. But the Houthis still have more. And that's part of the problem here.

This is going to be a long-term project for the U.S. and the U.K. and its allies, because the weapons supply that the Houthis apparently enjoy is perhaps greater than has been previously estimated. And certainly the Iranians have done a pretty good job of stocking them up for these kinds of occurrences, for this kind of activity against shipping around the world.

MARQUARDT: Yes. I think we need to put this in the proper context. We've seen a lot of back and forth between the U.S. and its allies and the Houthis. But this is a significant response today. Some 30 targets across at least 10 locations. Beth Sanner, talk to us about the Iran of it all because the U.S. and

the intelligence officials who I speak with, they say that of all the Iranian proxies, the Houthis perhaps the most march to the beat of their own drum. Sol how much of this is the Houthis doing what they want to to achieve their strategic goals? How much of this is Iran wanting them to do this?

SANNER: I think both. So, you know, I mean, the Houthis definitely do march to their own drummer but that doesn't mean that Iran doesn't have the ability to put the screws to them and, you know, make them stop, or, you know, control them in some way. We haven't seen Iran take their spy ship away. We haven't seen Iran remove the advisers on the ground, have we? I don't think so. So they're not trying. And that gets to your point like how much they want this to continue to happen.

You know, the Houthis are not deterrable the United States as I think been pointed out. Very bluntly. They're not deterrable by the United States. We can only degrade them. Iran however can deter them. So that means we have to go after Iran support for the Houthis.

MARQUARDT: I want to bring in Generally Mark Hertling into this conversation.

General Hertling, thank you so much for being with us. The Pentagon, as Oren was just pointing out, is talking about these counterstrikes, the ones last night in Iraq and Syria, as being different from the ones against the Houthis in Yemen, which are international.


They have the U.K. making up most of the fire power in terms of that level of support and other countries have given operational support.

But, General Hertling, do you look at these separate fronts as being distinct?

GEN. MARK HERTLING, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: I do, Alex. And there's a couple of reasons for that. First of all, the Houthis have been conducting a civil war since 2014, as Beth said.

The other factor is they are directly supplied by Iran, as are the popular mobilization forces are as well. But it's a different kind of fight.

The Houthis are an army. You talk about the PMFs in Syria, Iraq and other places in the Middle East, they're gangs. They literally -- we can't think of them being a tank division that you can bomb and there are a lot of casualties there.

These are small groups of individuals, flying under different flags, and not having a lot of military capabilities.

The Houthis, on the other hand, have shown, over the last 10 years, first as part of the fight with Saudi Arabia and then as part of their civil war in Yemen themselves, they've shown themselves as being somewhat militarily capable. They can fight. So what you're seeing -- and again, I'd like to bring the conversation to something else, too.

To all the individuals who were saying it took five days for the U.S. to do this, we publicized what we were going to do, I guarantee there are Quds Force elements on the ground with both the popular mobilization forces and the Houthis who don't know what hit them right now.

They are getting hit from multiple directions from a force coming in, in some cases, the United States, in some cases allies. And we're showing the requirement for the complexity of a planning of an operation and we're only in day two.

As I said last night, we shouldn't be making too many assumptions about what's going to happen next because we're at the early start of this. And already we've seen two significant strikes as part of the campaign.

MARQUARDT: Beth, I want to go back to you.

The Houthis have clearly said what they're doing is tied to their support for Palestinians in Gaza.

To what extent do you think they would stop doing this if that war were to end? To what extent do you see this as being connected to the conflict between Israel and Hamas.

BETH SANNA, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: The Houthis are using the issue in Gaza and the Palestinians as a way of bolstering their own domestic support.

You look at what's going on in Yemen and the Houthis are really struggling in their effort to lead that country. It's very, very poor. Desperate humanitarian situations.

The Palestinian cause is very popular there. So they're using it to rally support.

So I think that the Houthi calculus about whether to stop or not depends on how it ends in Gaza. And whether they can kind of say we've accomplished our mission in supporting the Palestinians and, you know, rah, rah, us.

But if the Palestinian cause in Hamas looks like the big loser, they have the capability -- I think it's really, really important that, yes, we're fighting this fight now against them around this Gaza war.

But the Houthi capability to disrupt shipping, international shipping will remain if we don't deal with it now. I think this is why I think it's separate in some ways, as Mark just pointed out.

MARQUARDT: And, Oren Lieberman, at the Pentagon, you said the U.S. is trying to thread this needle, essentially strike this balance of responding, deterring but not going too far.

I think that plays into the fact that the administration keeps talking about these different fronts as being separate and distinct issues.

But talk to me about what Pentagon officials are saying and doing to try to tamp each one down, to try to have -- you know, to communicate that these are different, and to make sure that they essentially don't boil over.

Because they clearly have expanded in the last few weeks and months.

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. We've seen the U.S. effort to go after Houthi capabilities very much become, frankly, a fairly common thing here.

It's rare now that we see a day or a few days we haven't seen the U.S. strike some sort of Houthi weaponry. Certainly, the latest strikes we're reporting on are larger.

But you clearly see an effort from U.S. Central Command to go after and really try to degrade, disrupt, whatever word you want to use there, Houthi capabilities.

I do want to point out one more thing here. This is, according to sources familiar with U.S. intelligence, Iranian leadership has, to at least some extent, grown concerned with the actions of its proxies.


Not just that deadly drone strike that killed three U.S. servicemembers but also especially the Houthi disruption of international shipping and international trade.

That's not a function of U.S. discomfort and concern over what's happening but countries that are far closer to Iran diplomatically, China and India, have expressed displeasure at how much this has affected the global economy and how global trade works here. So this has had an effect.

The question there, there is some level of space between Iranian leadership and the actions of the proxies. It's a function of how much space is there and how much can the U.S. use that space to try to get Iran to put pressure on its proxies to sort of back off.

The Houthis, given the statements they're making, don't seem to be at all willing to back off.

But other statements have been far more interesting, like the Hezbollah statement saying they have offered the groups they back to cease their attacks on U.S. forces.

So there is -- there is space here. And this isn't uniform here. And one of the things the U.S. is trying to do is figure out how much room there is to work and maneuver and, frankly, are any of these proxies listening in the first place.

MARQUARDT: Colonel Cedric Leighton, when you look at the resources the U.S. has in the region, specifically when it comes to dealing with the Houthis, we know the Eisenhower carrier strike group is out there. What does it tell you about how seriously the U.S. is taking this

issue and its capability to ratchet things up if it needs to.

COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Extremely serious, Alex. And you mentioned the carrier group, the Eisenhower, that's in the region. You have, more or less, stationed personnel from the Air Force and the Army, as well as, of course, the Navy, in the region, in Bahrain and in Qatar, for those and in Kuwait as well.

So you have a whole series of really forward-deployed locations, not just the small ones that have gotten our attention recently in Syria and Jordan and Iraq, but larger ones. And those larger ones are there for a purpose. They're there, in

essence, to deter Iran and any other actor that wanted to get into that area.

We have, in the past, looked at the Middle East as being kind of our area to help -- you know, help in terms of military security. There are a lot of challenges to that -- those arrangements.

But the fact we are there, that we continue to be there after several decades is a testament to the fact that we consider this area of vital importance not only to the U.S. economy but also to the global economy.

MARQUARDT: And, General Hertling, I want to bring you in to this part.

We also saw the Gerald Ford carrier group. They actually left a couple of weeks ago.

But here you have American ships and jets in the Red Sea. You have B-1 bombers flying over from the United States. You have U.S. intelligence drones flying over Gaza.

This is a remarkable level of activity from the U.S. military in the Middle East right now.

HERTLING: It is, Alex. And there's a reason for all that. And there's a reason -- I'll jump on what Cedric was just saying. There's a reason it's dispersed the way it is.

The reason the Eisenhower is in the place where it is, is because of their capability to knockdown ballistic missiles. They know that the Houthis are armed with those advanced kinds of weapons systems.

When you are talking about the PFM forces in Iraq and Syria, again, I go back, they're a small band of gang members with rifles and some inexpensive drones and some missiles that are unguided.

When you are talking about the Houthi's capability to strike against shipping and also send missiles 1,500 miles to Israel, which, remember, that's what they were doing early on in the war.

You need to put those destroyers and those frigates in the area because they have the anti-missile capability, the air-defense capability. Those are no good in the middle of the deserts of Iraq and Syria.

They are good in the Gulf of Aden and in the Red Sea where the Houthis, being supplied by the Iranians with more advanced weapons systems, can affect different targets in the area.

So all of this is a complicated assessment by the U.S. military, saying what do we put where? We put B-1 bombers against a bunch of individual targets in Iraq and Syria. We continue to use the naval task force, the in chop and the out chop of different types of carrier strike groups.


The reason there were two strike groups there at the time in the early stages of the war is one was entering the area and the other was leaving the area. And they both received orders to stay there for a certain amount of time.

There's only one carrier strike group there now but it's a fully capable group. The Eisenhower carrier strike group can knock down a whole bunch of missiles and that's what they've been doing so well at in that area.

MARQUARDT: Nic Robertson, I want to bring you back into the conversation about the view from Iran.

We've seen some interesting messages from Iran and proxy groups saying, we don't want war but we will respond if there's war. Oren just mentioned Hezbollah, one of the biggest Iran-backed groups in Iraq. They said they were standing down their military operations in efforts against the U.S.

What did you make of what we are hearing, the signals we are seeing from Iran?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: I think actions speak louder than words, don't they? Iran doesn't want a direct confrontation with the United States but the proxies are affecting on the United States, killing its troops and trying to undermine U.S. interests in the region.

Hezbollah, a couple of days ago, was correct. Oren was correct saying, when it was clear the United States was about to launch missiles, bombs that might hit them, they said they were standing down at the moment.

This is an engagement of war, if you will, that they've been in for some long time to take on U.S. targets, to say they're stepping out of the ring for a couple of rounds and potentially step back in later, which is what they signaled last night about 50 minutes before the airstrikes went in.

Hezbollah, on their Telegram channel, said they were waiting for orders about what to do next. Those orders, presumably because they're an Iran-backed proxy, were from Iran. They were waiting for instructions. So I think actions speak louder than words. And it is clear that Iran

has the ability, not -- not the absolute 100 percent control, but the ability to influence and turn on and turn off proxies at will.

Look, if you look at Hezbollah and Lebanon to the north of here that is engaged in an uptick in exchange of fire with Israeli forces in the north of Israel, they very much listen and -- to what the leadership in Iran is saying.

They have their own set of political parameters that they're working to. In Lebanon, they have their own concerns about their own stability there.

But when Tehran doesn't want to escalate the war with Israel on that northern border, Hezbollah won't do it. If Iran did, I think most bets are they would do it.

When a group says something, it doesn't -- may not hold fact to be factually correct a few days later.

And I think the Houthis are a point in case here. Look at how they affect the region. Just a couple of years ago, they were fighting a long war with Saudi Arabia. After October 7th, they actually did a mini incursion in Saudi Arabia, killed troops on the border.

They say they're fighting for the people of Gaza, the Palestinians, but the talk these days is of a normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

What are Houthis going to do in regard to that? Will they try to undermine Saudi Arabia, perhaps at the behest of Iran? It's so complicated.

But it does come back that the fact that all of these little groups, large, little groups, if you will, can have their own effect undermining U.S. interests, be it Saudi, be it Israel.

MARQUARDT: It is complicated, tangled, and I'm lucky to have all of you here to help us make sense of this. I want you to stay with me.


But we are going to take a quick break. We'll be back in just a moment with more of our breaking news. Stay with us.


MARQUARDT: We are continuing to follow this breaking news. The U.S. and the U.K. striking 30 additional Houthi targets in Yemen. This comes one day after the U.S. strikes in Iraq and Syria against seven different facilities, 85 different targets.

It comes as President Biden is on his way to southern California for a series of fundraising events this weekend.

CNN's Pricilla Alvarez is live in Los Angeles for us. So, Priscilla, amid this flurry of strikes in the Middle East, what

are you hearing from the White House?

PRISCILLA ALVAREZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: That's right, Alex. I'm hearing from the White House that the president gave the green light for these strikes to happen earlier this week.

The president is currently en route to Los Angeles where he will be, as you mentioned, engaged in fundraisers and later to Nevada where he will have a campaign rally.

But all of this, the president hitting the campaign trail while also having to grapple with the situation overseas.

That includes, for example, these strikes we're just now learning about that occurred in Yemen but also the strikes that occurred yesterday when they hit those 85 targets in Iraq and Syria as retaliation for the Iranian proxies killing these three American servicemembers.

And the president has been very clear, including in a statement last night that, these strikes are not the end. This is only the beginning. It's a matter of deterrence. It's also diminishing capabilities.

But also very carefully trying to avoid being pulled into a wider regional war. That is the challenge that the president faces here.

He has said repeatedly that the U.S. will respond and respond forcefully, especially when servicemembers are killed. But also that they do not -- that the U.S. does not want to escalate any tensions abroad.


Notably, of course, these strikes that occurred yesterday did not happen in Iran. That was unlikely going in. But it's just another example of how they're trying to be careful with the region that is on edge.

But also, Alex, as the weekend showed and last weekend showed, the president, as he is trying to campaign ahead of November and going and visiting different states, is also having to grapple with the trappings of the presidency.

That last weekend is when we learned those three servicemembers were killed. That happened when the president was in South Carolina rallying black voters for their primary today. And today, as he heads to the west coast, all of these strikes are unfolding.

So the president here trying to walk a fine line and responding to these attacks in the Middle East and not being pulled into that war while also hitting the campaign trial.

MARQUARDT: All right, Priscilla Alvarez in Los Angeles.

I'm going to ask you to stay with us while we bring back in our panel of experts on foreign policy.

Beth Sanna, I want to go back to you.

We have some reporting from our colleagues that have reported that Iran has actually been rather uncomfortable with some of the activities of their proxy groups.

What do you make of that? Do you think that is possible that Iran is not liking what it's seeing?

SANNA: I've heard some of the same things and it always makes me wonder which Iranians people are talking to.

And you know, just like our political situation, the Iranians are not a monolith. They're more monolithic in some ways but there are differences.

If you're talking to people in Iran, like the president, who today in a speech didn't even mention the attacks in Iraq and Syria, well, you know, maybe they have different goals and they prioritize the goals differently than the IRGC.

So maybe it's worthwhile to take a step back and say like, Iran actually has a very complicated situation that they're trying to work through to their advantage as well.

They want to get U.S. forces out of the region. They want Hamas to retain in -- as a Palestinian leadership in Gaza. They want to destroy Israel. They want to be hegemons in the regions. All these things, some of these conflicts.

So I think that, you know, we should recognize that they have to work through kind of a complicated calculus as well. And we should make that as hard as possible.

MARQUARDT: General Mark Hertling, there were more than 160 strikes against U.S. and coalition positions in Iraq and Syria since October. That the U.S. had been responding to, but in a far lesser way than what we saw last night.

So what do you think has changed in the U.S. calculus after the deaths of those three servicemembers last weekend?

HERTLING: It comes to a boiling point, I believe, Alex. What you're talking about is the national security establishment coming together.

We talk about those 160 strikes that have occurred since October 7th. But when you're talking about Iranian fomenting discourse in the area, the entire Middle East, from Iran to Lebanon, you're talking about the PMFs have been doing these things not since October 7th but probably within the last 20 years. They've just not been as noticeable.

They were very active during the time when U.S. forces were in Iraq. They've been very active since we left Iraq. It is, at best, a form of Iran's national security strategy to put these free-floating electrons, if you will, these PMS forces all over the area to do their external strategy.

Meanwhile, inside of Iran, you've got a whole lot of dysfunction, from a national perspective. So this is their way of trying to keep their regional identity and keep control of the area and be seen as being powerful. It's not working.

Going back to your question though, what caused this sudden burst of energy, this campaign plan by the United States? I believe it's because we were playing Whack a Mole with all the small forces, attempting to keep them under control and strike them and not sustain any damages .

And it just gets to a boiling point where the national security establishment of the United States says, OK, enough is enough, now we have got to do something.

I think this massive reaction, again, threading the needle between hurting these forces and ensuring there isn't a regional war, is very difficult to do.

But it just comes to the point where you have to do something like that to put the enemy in line. I think that's what's happened right now.

MARQUARDT: Nic Robertson, we only have 30 seconds. But how is the rest of the region seeing this? Now Jordan is involved because the strike last weekend.


ROBERTSON: Yes, Jordan will be much more on edge about this. We certainly know that Hamas has spoken about their terms of a ceasefire. They're sticking to what they've said. They don't seem to be moving.

The second day, they said they don't seem to be moving to a position that Israel, Qatar have agreed upon.

So I think they feel enabled by this. It draws out their conflict in Gaza as well. Getting to an end stop there appears much harder. Therefore, that keeps attention on the northern border here.

All of these, as we keep saying, are interconnected. And Iran is behind all of them.

But how did you get to an end stop? I think the Gaza issue is going to be a big part of it. But you will be left with is this residual knowledge and Iran has that knowledge of its proxies reach and prowess from the region now.

MARQUARDT: All right, everyone stay with us. There's lots more to discuss. We're going to continue covering this breaking news right after a quick break. Stay with us.