US warplanes destroyed or severely damaged most of the Iranian and militia targets they struck in Syria and Iraq on Friday, according to the Pentagon, the first major salvo in what President Biden and his aides said would be a sustained campaign.
Maj. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder, the Pentagon’s press secretary, said Monday that “more than 80” of about 85 targets in Syria and Iraq had been destroyed or disabled. Targets, he said, included command centers; intelligence centers; warehouses for rockets, missiles and attack drones; as well as logistics and ammunition bunkers.
It was the first military assessment of strikes carried out in response to a drone strike in Jordan by Iran-backed militias in Iraq on January 28 that killed three US soldiers and wounded at least 40 other service members.
“This is the beginning of our response and additional actions will be taken,” General Ryder told reporters without elaborating. “We are not seeking conflict in the Middle East or anywhere else, but attacks on American forces will not be tolerated.”
But the assessment also shows the limits of the American campaign so far. In particular, US officials acknowledge that the targeted militias still retain much of their ability to carry out future attacks.
There were no initial indications that Iranian advisers were killed in Friday’s strikes, military officials said, but General Ryder said there were likely casualties. Syria and Iraq said at least 39 people — 23 in Syria and 16 in Iraq — were killed in Friday’s attacks, a number the Iraqi government said included civilians.
The strikes in the two countries, as well as US-led strikes on 36 Houthi targets in northern Yemen on Saturday, have brought the region closer to a wider conflict, although the administration insists it does not want war with Iran. Instead, U.S. officials say they are focused on eliminating the militias’ vast arsenals and deterring additional attacks on U.S. troops as well as merchant shipping in the Red Sea.
However, the militias do not seem to be contained. Hours after Friday’s attack, an Iranian-backed militia fired two rockets at a US military outpost in northeastern Syria where troops are helping to destroy remnants of Islamic State. On Sunday, a drone loaded with explosives was fired at another US outpost in northeastern Syria. The missiles did not cause any damage or injuries to Americans, the Pentagon said. The military’s Central Command said on Sunday that US forces had destroyed five Houthi surface-to-air and anti-ship cruise missiles that posed an immediate threat.
On Monday, US forces carried out an attack on two naval drones loaded with explosives that Central Command said posed an immediate threat to ships in the region.
In all, Iran-backed militias have carried out at least 166 drone, rocket and missile attacks on US troops in Iraq, Syria and Jordan since the October 7 Hamas attack that killed 1,200 people in Israel. The Houthis have carried out at least three dozen attacks on ships in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. The militia says its attacks are in solidarity with Palestinians in the war between Israel and Hamas.
National security experts and officials say privately that the United States would have to wage a multi-year campaign similar to the six-year effort to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria to truly degrade the capability of Shiite militias. Even then, officials say, the militias, with Iranian support, could probably outlast the Islamic State, which has been pressured by the United States and Iran and even Russia.
US officials warned over the weekend and Monday that more strikes were planned in what appears to be an open campaign not only in Yemen – where the United States and Britain first launched major retaliatory strikes on January 11 – but now in Syria and Iraq to retaliate the death of three army reservists, who were killed at a remote supply base.
“The president was clear when he ordered them and when he led them that this is the beginning of our response and there will be more steps,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan told CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday, referring to the strikes. in Iraq and Syria.
Mr Sullivan said he did not want to “telegraph our punches” by revealing details of future actions. But he said the goal is to punish those who target Americans without directly confronting Iran.
Analysts say there are already signs the latest strikes are having an impact in Tehran, where a highly unpopular government already struggling with a weak economy, outbreaks of mass protests and terrorism has little appetite for an all-out war with the United States.
But regional experts say reining in Iran’s proxies, which rely on Tehran for weapons, intelligence and funding, could prove more difficult.
“Around 2020, Iran began to give these groups full permission to attack United States positions in Iraq and Syria,” Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., retired head of U.S. Central Command, said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” in. Sunday. “They have the opportunity to generate these attacks without directly going back to Iran.”
The main question for Mr. Biden and his national security aides is what additional targets in Iraq and Syria might be hit.
On Friday, US B-1B bombers and other warplanes hit targets at four sites in Syria and three sites in Iraq in a 30-minute strike, US officials said. John F. Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said the targets at each location were chosen because they were linked to specific attacks on US troops in the region, and to avoid civilian casualties.
By avoiding targets in Iran, the White House and Central Command are trying to send a message of deterrence while controlling escalation, US officials said. It is clear from the statements of the White House and Tehran that neither side wants a wider war. But as the strike in Jordan showed, with any military action there is a chance for misjudgment.
Helen Cooper contributed to the reporting.