The United States launched airstrikes in Syria on Thursday targeting facilities near the Iraqi border used by Iranian-backed militia groups. The Pentagon said the strike was in retaliation for a rocket attack in Iraq earlier this month that killed a civilian entrepreneur and injured a U.S. service member and other coalition troops.
The air strike was the first military operation carried out by the Biden administration, which in its first weeks has emphasized its intention to focus more on the challenges facing China, even though threats in the Middle East remain. Biden’s decision to attack Syria did not seem to signal an intention to expand US military involvement in the region, but rather to show a willingness to defend US troops in Iraq.
“I’m sure of the goal we went for, we know what we hit,” Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told reporters flying with him from California to Washington. Speaking shortly after the airstrikes, he added: “We are convinced that the target was used by the same Shiite militants who carried out the attacks,” referring to a rocket attack on February 15 in northern Iraq that killed a civilian entrepreneur and injured a U.S. service member and other coalition personnel.
Austin said he recommended the measure to Biden.
“We said a number of times that we will respond to our timeline,” Austin said. “We wanted to be sure of the connection and we wanted to be sure that we had the right goal.”
Earlier, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the United States’ actions were a “proportionate military response” taken in conjunction with diplomatic measures, including consultations with coalition partners.
“The operation sends a clear message: President Biden will act to protect American and coalition personnel,” Kirby said. “At the same time, we have acted deliberately to reduce the overall situation in eastern Syria and Iraq.”
Kirby said the US airstrikes “destroyed several facilities at a border checkpoint used by a number of Iranian – backed militant groups”, including Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada. The United States has in the past carried out Kataib Hezbollah for many attacks targeting US personnel and interests in Iraq.
Further details were not immediately available.
Biden’s administration officials condemned the February 15 rocket attack near the city of Irbil in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region, but as recently as this week, officials showed they had not decided who carried out it. Officials have noted that Iranian-backed Shiite militia groups have previously been responsible for many rocket attacks on US personnel or facilities in Iraq.
Kirby had said on Tuesday that Iraq was responsible for investigating the attack on February 15.
“Right now we can not give you a certain attribution of who was behind these attacks, what groups, and I will not go into the tactical details of every piece of weapon used here,” Kirby said. “Let’s let the investigations complete and conclude, and when we have more to say, we will do it.”
A little-known Shiite militant group calling itself Saraya Awliya al-Dam, Arab for the Guardians of Blood Brigade, claimed responsibility for the attack on 15 February. One week later, a rocket attack in Baghdad’s green zone appeared to be aimed at the US Embassy Association, but no one was injured.
Iran this week said it has no links to the Guardians of Blood Brigade.
The frequency of attacks by Shiite militias on US targets in Iraq declined late last year ahead of President Joe Biden’s inauguration, but now Iran is pressuring America to return to Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal. The US under the former Trump administration blamed Iran-backed groups to carry out the attacks. Tensions rose following a Washington-led drone strike that killed Iranian top official Qassem Soleimani and powerful Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandi last year.
Trump had said the death of a US entrepreneur would be a red line and provoke US escalation in Iraq. The killing of a US civilian entrepreneur in December 2019 in a rocket attack in Kirkuk triggered a tit-for-tat fight on Iraqi soil that brought the country to the brink of a proxy war.
US forces have been significantly reduced in Iraq to 2,500 personnel and no longer participate in combat missions with Iraqi forces in ongoing operations against the Islamic State group.