US carries out air strikes against Iranian-backed militia facilities in Syria: Pentagon

US President Joe Biden's decision to strike only in Syria and not in Iraq, at least for now, gives the Iraqi government some breathing room.
US President Joe Biden's decision to strike only in Syria and not in Iraq, at least for now, gives the Iraqi government some breathing room.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - United States President Joe Biden on Thursday (Feb 25) directed US military air strikes in eastern Syria against facilities belonging to what the Pentagon said were Iran-backed militia, in a calibrated response to recent rocket attacks against US targets in Iraq. 

The strikes, which were first reported by Reuters, appeared to be limited in scope, potentially lowering the risk of escalation. 

Mr Biden’s decision to strike only in Syria and not in Iraq, at least for now, also gives the Iraqi government some breathing room as it carries out its own investigation of a Feb 15 attack that wounded Americans. 

"At President (Joe) Biden’s direction, US military forces earlier this evening conducted air strikes against infrastructure utilised by Iranian-backed militant groups in eastern Syria," Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a statement. 

"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," Mr Kirby said. 

He added that the strikes destroyed multiple facilities at a border control point used by a number of Iranian-backed militant groups, including Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada. 

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

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

It was not immediately clear what damage was caused and if there were any casualties from the US strike.

There was no official comment from Syria on the strikes, but state-owned Ekhbariya TV quoted its reporter in Deir al-Zor as stating that strikes had taken place at dawn against several targets near the Syrian-Iraqi border.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the decision to carry out the 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.

Representative Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the strikes were the right move. 

"Responses like this are a necessary deterrent and remind Iran, its proxies, and our adversaries around the world that attacks on US interests will not be tolerated," Mr McCaul said. 

Ms Suzanne Maloney, of the Brookings Institution think tank, said the strikes showed the Biden administration could negotiate with Iran on the nuclear deal while pushing back against the militias it backed. 

"Good move by... Biden (administration) demonstrating US can walk and chew gum at the same time," she said on Twitter.

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

The rocket attacks against US positions in Iraq were carried out as Washington and Teheran are looking for a way to return to the 2015 nuclear deal abandoned by former US president Donald Trump.

It was not clear how, or whether, the strike might affect US efforts to coax Iran back into a negotiation about both sides resuming compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal.

In the Feb 15 attack, rockets hit the US 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 US service member.

Another salvo struck a base hosting US forces north of Baghdad days later, hurting at least one contractor.

Rockets hit Baghdad’s Green Zone on Monday, which houses the US  embassy and other diplomatic missions. 

Earlier this week, the Kataib Hezbollah group, one of the main Iran-aligned Iraqi militia group, denied any role in recent rocket attacks against US targets in Iraq. 

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

Since late 2019, the US carried out high-profile strikes against the Kataib Hezbollah militia group in Iraq and Syria in response to sometimes deadly rocket attacks against US-led forces. 

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