U.S. Strikes Iranian-backed Militias in Syria; Sources Say at Least 17 Killed

The 'multiple facilities located at a border control point used by a number of Iranian-backed militant groups' comes amid a tense standoff over the nuclear deal with Iran and rocket fire on U.S. sites in Iraq

Reuters
Ben Samuels
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U.S. President Joe Biden in Washington D.C. yesterday
U.S. President Joe Biden in Washington D.C. yesterdayCredit: SAUL LOEB - AFP
Reuters
Ben Samuels

The United States on Thursday carried out an airstrike in Syria against a structure belonging to what it said were Iran-backed Iraqi militias, at the orders of President Joe Biden, which a militia official said killed one of its members and wounded several others.

A statement from Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby confirmed the strike in Eastern Syria "destroyed multiple facilities located at a border control point used by a number of Iranian-backed militant groups," naming Kata'ib Hezbollah (KH) and Kata'ib Sayyid al-Shuhada (KSS).

Asked on Friday what message he was trying to send to Iran with the air strike, Biden said: "You can't act with impunity." He paused, then added, "Be careful."

The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 17 people were killed in the strike, all Iraqi nationals. Local sources and one medical source also told Reuters at least 17 died.

According to the observatory, the strike targeted a weapons shipment from Iraq to the armed forces in Syria.

Syrian state television reported on Friday that a U.S. attack at dawn targeted several areas in Eastern Syria on the Syrian-Iraqi border,  citing its reporter in Deir al-Zor. There was no official comment yet from Syria on the air strikes.

The Iraqi militia official told the Associated Press that the strikes against the Kataeb Hezbollah militia, or Hezbollah Brigades, hit an area along the border between the Syrian site of Boukamal facing Qaim on the Iraqi side. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak of the attack.

The strike comes after a series of recent rocket attack against U.S. targets in Iraq, which were also cited in the statement. The rockets killed one U.S.-led coalition contractor and injured eight other people in the northern city of Erbil earlier this month.

The U.S. described the measures as a "proportionate military response," and stated that it was conducted alongside diplomatic measures and coordinated with coalition partners. 

"The operation sends an unambiguous message: President Biden will act to protect American and Coalition personnel. At the same time, we have acted in a deliberate manner that aims to de-escalate the overall situation in both eastern Syria and Iraq,” the statement concluded. 

A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the decision to carry out these strikes was meant to send a signal that while the United States wanted to punish the militias, it did not want the situation to spiral into a bigger conflict.

The official added that Biden was presented with a range of options and one of the most limited responses was chosen.

Retaliatory U.S. military strikes have occurred a number of times in the past few years.

The rocket attacks on U.S. positions in Iraq were carried out as Washington and Tehran are looking for a way to return to the 2015 nuclear deal abandoned by former U.S. President Donald Trump.

It was not clear how, or whether, the strike might affect U.S. efforts to coax Iran back into a negotiation about both sides resuming compliance with the agreement.

In the February 15 attack, rockets hit the U.S. military base housed at Erbil International Airport in the Kurdish-run region killing one non-American contractor and injuring a number of American contractors and a U.S. service member. Another salvo struck a base hosting U.S. forces north of Baghdad days later hurting at least one contractor.

Rockets hit Baghdad's Green Zone on Monday which houses the U.S. embassy and other diplomatic missions.

Earlier this week, the Kata'ib Hezbollah group, one of the main Iran-aligned Iraqi militia groups, denied any role in the rocket attacks.

Some Western and Iraqi officials say the attacks, often claimed by little-known groups, are being carried out by militants with links to Kata'ib Hezbollah as a way for Iranian allies to harass U.S. forces without being held accountable.

Since late 2019, the United States carried out high-profile strikes against the Kata'ib Hezbollah militia group in Iraq and Syria in response to sometimes deadly rocket attacks against U.S.-led forces.

Under the Trump administration, the escalator back-and-forth stoked tensions, culminating in the U.S. killing of Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani and a retaliatory Iranian ballistic missile attack against U.S. forces in Iraq last year.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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