The United States carried out two airstrikes on facilities used by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its proxies in eastern Syria on Friday morning in retaliation for a spate of recent missile and drone attacks on US forces in Iraq and Syria.
The strikes were meant to send a strong signal to Iran to curb attacks the Biden administration has blamed on Tehran’s proxies in Syria and Iraq without escalating the conflict in the Middle East, US officials said. The targets represent a significant escalation in attacks on facilities used by Iran’s own forces in the region, not just militias in Iraq and Syria that it helps arm and train.
“These precision strikes in self-defense are in response to a series of ongoing and largely unsuccessful attacks on U.S. personnel in Iraq and Syria by Iranian-backed militia groups,” Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said in a statement.
“The United States is not seeking conflict and has no intention or desire to engage in further hostilities, but these attacks on American forces supported by Iran are unacceptable and must stop,” Mr. Austin said.
Since Hamas’ surprise attack on Israel on October 7, President Biden and his aides have sought to contain the war between Israel and Hamas and prevent it from spilling over into a regional conflict with Iran and its proxies in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.
To that end, the US has deployed two aircraft carriers in the eastern Mediterranean near Israel and dozens of additional warplanes in the Persian Gulf region to deter Iran and its proxies in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq from engaging in a regional war. The Pentagon also rushed additional Patriot anti-missile batteries and other air defenses to several Gulf countries to protect US troops and bases in the region.
But with almost daily attacks on US forces over the past 10 days – the number has risen to at least 16 after the Pentagon confirmed a failed attack on a base in Erbil, Iraq on Thursday – pressure is mounting on the United States to respond militarily.
“These narrowly tailored strikes in self-defense were aimed solely at the protection and defense of US personnel in Iraq and Syria,” Mr Austin said. “They are separate and distinct from the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas and do not represent a change in our approach to the Israel-Hamas conflict.”
“Iran wants to hide its hand and deny its role in these attacks on our forces,” Mr. Austin. “We will not allow them. If attacks by Iranian proxies on American forces continue, we will not hesitate to take further necessary measures to protect our people.”
Mr Biden, asked on Wednesday about drone attacks on US military personnel in Iraq and Syria in recent days, said he had warned Iran “we will respond if they continue to move against those troops”.
The US retaliatory strikes on Friday came just hours after the Pentagon announced that 19 US military personnel based in Iraq and Syria had suffered traumatic brain injuries following missile and drone attacks by Iran-backed militants last week.
The Defense Ministry previously said 21 service members suffered minor injuries but had returned to duty after the Oct. 17 and 18 attacks on al-Asad Air Base in western Iraq and al-Tanf Garrison in southern Syria.
Since Oct. 17, Iran-backed militias have carried out at least 12 missile or one-way drone strikes against U.S. troops in Iraq and at least four strikes in Syria, Brig. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, said Thursday. It has 2,500 troops in Iraq and 900 in Syria, mostly assisting local allies in counter-terrorist missions against the Islamic State.
“I believe there is concern that our bases in Syria and Iraq, particularly Syria, could be attacked by a wave of drones and that could overwhelm the defenses that are currently there,” Mick Mulroy, a former defense official and retired CIA officer, said this week. e. .
General Ryder said Thursday that 15 of the 17 soldiers injured in al-Tanf and all four soldiers injured in al-Asad were subsequently diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries.
“As we’ve seen in the past, there are situations where a few days after an attack, a member may self-report tinnitus, headaches,” said Gen. Ryder, who said there were no other diagnoses of traumatic brain injury. since then.
In March, U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that a self-destructing drone of “Iranian origin” killed a U.S. contractor and wounded another contractor and five U.S. service members in an attack on a maintenance facility at a coalition base in northeastern Syria.
Mr. Biden retaliated by ordering the Pentagon to carry out airstrikes on facilities in eastern Syria used by groups affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, but not by Iranian forces themselves.
Asked by reporters Thursday when the administration would retaliate for the latest series of attacks on American troops, General Ryder said the United States always reserves the right to self-defense. “If and when we decide to respond,” General Ryder said, “we will do so at a time and place of our choosing.”
That time came early Friday morning.