US plans 'more action' after striking militants in response to killing of 3 American troops

"This was the beginning," the White House national security adviser said.

February 4, 2024, 12:07 PM

After carrying out dozens of strikes in Iraq and Syria last week, the U.S. will take "more action" against Iran-backed militants in response to a deadly drone attack on an American base in Jordan, the White House's national security adviser said Sunday.

"This was the beginning of our response, there will be more steps," Jake Sullivan told ABC News "This Week" anchor George Stephanopoulos. "Some of those steps will be seen, some may not be seen. But there will be more action taken to respond to the tragic death of the three brave U.S. service members."

Late Friday, the U.S. launched its first round of retaliatory strikes in Syria and Iraq, hitting as many as 85 targets at seven facilities in less than 45 minutes, according to the U.S., which has blamed Iran-backed fighters for the attack on Tower 22 in Jordan on Jan. 28.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement that the targets were being used by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps "and affiliated militias ... to attack U.S. forces."

Iran has denied involvement in the strike on Tower 22. Pressed by Stephanopoulos on Sunday whether additional retaliation could escalate tension with Iran, Sullivan said it's something the U.S. is prepared for.

"This is something that we have to look at as a threat," he said. "We have to prepare for every contingency, and we are prepared for that contingency. And I would just say, from the perspective of Tehran, if they chose to respond directly to the United States, they would be met with a swift and forceful response from us."

Asked how much direct contact the U.S. has had with Iran to try and contain mounting hostilities in the Middle East, in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war sparked by Hamas' Oct. 7 terror attack, Sullivan suggested the U.S. strikes were their own kind of message.

"Over the course of the past few months, we've had the opportunity to engage in the passage of messages back and forth between the U.S. and Iran," he said. "But in the last few days, the message that we have sent to Iran has been through our action not through our words."

By contrast, Sullivan said the U.S. has been in "constant" communication with Israel, and in talks with Qatar and Egypt, in pushing for a deal to secure the release of many of the remaining Oct. 7 hostages thought to be held by Hamas.

Such an agreement would be tied to a more long-term, if not lasting, cease-fire, Sullivan said.

"We regard a hostage deal, the release of hostages, as both being obviously critical for getting people home to their loved ones, but also being critical to generate a sustained pause in hostilities that can support the flow of humanitarian assistance and that can alleviate the suffering in Gaza," Sullivan said.

But that hinges on Hamas, he said.

PHOTO: National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan attends a session during the 54th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 16, 2024.
National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan attends a session during the 54th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 16, 2024.
Denis Balibouse/Reuters, FILE

Stephanopoulos asked if a hostage deal was imminent and Sullivan said, "I cannot tell you it's right around the corner."

"Ultimately these kinds of negotiations unfold somewhat slowly until they unfold very quickly. And so it's difficult to put a precise timetable on when something might come together or, frankly, if something might come together," Sullivan said.

More broadly, Sullivan reiterated that the U.S. sees only one "long-term answer to peace in the region" and "to Israel's security": a state for the Palestinians, with "security guarantees for Israel."

"That's what we're going to keep working for," Sullivan said, adding, "I think since Oct. 7, the need to work on that has only increased."

However, he dodged when asked by Stephanopoulos if work on a peace plan would require a change in Israel's current, right-wing government, though Sullivan did say that President Joe Biden had privately made his views about a future Palestinian state clear to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Separately, Sullivan addressed ongoing work in Congress on potential military aid to Israel and other countries.

A bipartisan agreement is close in the Senate to provide more funding to Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan and to fund enforcement at the U.S.-Mexico border while overhauling immigration policy.

However, House Speaker Mike Johnson has panned reported details of that pending deal, saying it doesn't go far enough on immigration. Instead, Johnson said he plans to introduce a stand-alone aid bill for Israel.

"Well, the timing is interesting," Sullivan told Stephanopoulos.

"We regard that not as actually trying to address the security of Israel, but rather trying to address politics in the United States," Sullivan said. "And from our perspective, security of Israel should be sacred. It should not be a political game."

Pressed on if Biden would sign the stand-alone Israel aid bill if it made it to his desk, Sullivan said the president favors the Senate's work and "doesn't think doing these things piecemeal makes sense."

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