WASHINGTON — President Biden ordered air strikes on buildings in Syria on Thursday. The Pentagon said that Iran-backed militias used air strikes in retaliation for rocket attacks on American targets in neighboring Iraq.
The Pentagon press secretary, John Kirby, characterized the explosion in eastern Syria as carefully calibrated, calling it “proportionate” and “defensive.”
This operation is the first use of force by the Biden administration and has been emphasizing the plan for several weeks, focusing more on the challenges facing China.
The president’s decision appears to be aimed at sending a signal to Iran and its regional proxies that Washington will not tolerate attacks on its Iraqi personnel even at sensitive diplomatic moments.
Iraq carried out three rocket attacks in a week, including a fatal strike, which attacked the base of the US-led coalition forces in the northern Iraqi town of Ibir and tested Biden only a few weeks after serving as president. The rocket attack occurred on the occasion of a diplomatic initiative launched by the U.S. government to revive the 201
Kirby said in a statement, “The airstrikes were in response to the recent attacks on U.S. and coalition personnel in Iraq and in response to the continuing threats from these personnel.”
He said the operation “destroyed multiple facilities located at border control points used by many Iranian-backed militant groups,” including Katab Hezbollah and Katab Said Shuhada.
Syrian and Iranian officials did not immediately react to the strike.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Friday that 22 people were killed in the strike. The London monitoring team did not provide any details on how the figure was obtained. The news of the Iranian national broadcasting company IRIB also stated that 17 “resistance forces” were killed in the strike, but apart from citing “reports”, no detailed information about the source of the numbers was provided.
A senior U.S. defense official told NBC News on Thursday evening that the target was a transportation hub near the Iraq-Syrian border used by militia fighters. It is too early to say what casualties the militants might cause.
“The action sent a clear message: President Biden will take action to protect American and coalition personnel. At the same time, we have taken deliberate actions to reduce the overall situation in eastern Syria and Iraq.”
The official said that two US planes participated in a strike that took place at around 6 pm Eastern time on Thursday or around 2 am in Syria on Friday.
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Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told reporters traveling with him that the Bush administration “considered our approach very seriously.”
Austin said: “We are confident that the Shi’ite militia who attacked are using the target.”
The Pentagon has previously stated that it is awaiting the results of Iraq’s investigation into the Erbil rocket attack.
Austin said: “We allow and encourage Iraqis to research and develop intelligence, which is very helpful for us to improve our goals.” Austin went to Washington after visiting California and Colorado.
He said Biden approved the action on Thursday morning.
A civilian contractor was killed in an Irbil rocket attack, and an American soldier and other personnel were injured. At least two 107mm rockets landed on the base, which is also the location of the Ibir Civil International Airport.
NBC News previously reported that Iran-backed militias are most likely behind the Irbil rocket attack, and their weapons and tactics are similar to previous attacks by militias linked to Iran. However, it is not clear whether Iran has encouraged or ordered rocket attacks.
A little-known group named Saraya Awliya al-Dam, the custodian of blood, claimed responsibility for the Irbil attack. But former diplomats and regional analysts say that the organization is just a frontline organization created by the main Shiite militia in Iraq.
After the rocket attack on the Irbil base, Iraq’s Balad Air Force Base was fired by rockets a few days later. A U.S. defense company served the country’s fighter jets. Then two rockets landed on the compound of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad nearby.
Iran rejected any contact with the rocket attack.
The content of the White House’s conversations showed that in the phone call between Biden and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Kadimi, the leaders of the two countries reached a consensus that “all those responsible for such attacks must be held accountable.”
Dennis Ross, a former senior US diplomat, worked on Middle East policy under the leadership of several presidents. He said that the Obama administration has reduced the risk of friction with the Iraqi government by targeting Syrian targets.
Ross said on Twitter: “By attacking facilities used by militias on the Syrian border, the risk of counterattacks against the Iraqi government is reduced.”
Dan De Luce and Mosheh received coverage from Washington; Ali Arouzi reported from London; Tehran reported Amin Hussein Kodadadi (Amin Hossein Khodadadi); Cairo reports on Charlene Gubash.
The Associated Press has contributed.
Ali Arouzi, Amin Hossein Khodadadi and Charlene Gubash Contributed.