WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden ordered airstrikes on Syrian buildings on Thursday, which the Pentagon says Iranian-backed militias used in retaliation for rocket attacks on neighboring U.S. targets in Iraq.
John Kirby, the Pentagon’s press secretary, carefully calibrated the East Syrian bombing, calling it “proportionate” and “defensive.”
The operation was the first known use of military force by the Biden government, which for weeks has highlighted plans to focus on China’s challenges.
The president’s decision seemed to be to send a signal to Iran and its representatives in the region that Washington would not tolerate attacks on Iraqi personnel, even at a sensitive diplomatic moment.
In a week, three rocket attacks in Iraq, including a deadly strike that reached a U.S.-led coalition base in northern Iraq, Iraq, just weeks after taking the presidency, put Biden to the test. The missile attacks coincided with a diplomatic initiative launched by the administration to try to revive a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers.
The airstrikes were “authorized in response to recent attacks on U.S. and coalition personnel in Iraq, as well as ongoing threats to those personnel,” Kirby said in a statement.
The operation “destroyed several facilities located at a border checkpoint used by a number of Iranian-backed armed groups,” including Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada.
Syrian and Iranian officials did not respond immediately to the strikes.
The Syrian Human Rights Observatory said on Friday that 22 people had died in the strikes. The London-based monitoring group did not provide details on how it reached this number. Iranian state broadcaster IRIB reportedly killed 17 “resilient fighters” in the strikes in the meantime, but provided only details of the source of the number, citing “reports”.
A senior U.S. defense official told NBC News Thursday night that the target was a transit hub near the Iraqi-Syrian border used by militia fighters, and it is too early to tell what losses the gunmen may have caused.
“The operation sends a clear message: President Biden is acting to protect American and coalition personnel. At the same time, we have acted in a prudent manner aimed at escalating the overall situation in Syria in eastern and Iraq, ”he said.
Two U.S. planes took part in the strikes, which took place in Syria at 6pm on Thursday or 2am on Friday, the official said.
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Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told reporters traveling with him that the administration “looked at our approach very carefully”.
“We are confident that the target was used by the same Shiite militia that led the strikes,” Austin said of Iraq’s recent rocket attacks against the United States and coalition personnel.
The Pentagon has previously said it is awaiting the results of an investigation into the Iraqi missile attack in Iraq.
“We allowed and encouraged Iraqis to explore and develop intelligence, and it was very helpful to us in refining the goal,” said Austin, who traveled to Washington after his visits to California and Colorado.
Biden approved the operation Thursday morning, he said.
A civilian entrepreneur was killed in the Irbil missile attack, one member of the U.S. service and others were wounded. At least two 107mm missiles landed at the base, which is also home to Irbil’s civilian international airport.
NBC News previously reported that the Iranian missile attack is likely to be backed by Iranian-backed militias, and that the weapons and tactics are similar to previous attacks by Iranian-related militias. However, it was not clear whether Iran encouraged or ordered a missile attack.
Saraya Awliya al-Dam, or a vague group called the Custodians of Blood, claimed responsibility for the Irbil attack. But former diplomats and regional analysts say the group is merely a front-line organization set up by Iraq’s main Shiite militias.
Following a rocket attack on the Irbil base, Iraqi Balad Air Base came under rocket fire days ago, where a U.S. defense company supplied the country’s fighter jets, and then two missiles landed near a compound at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
Iran has denied all contact with the missile attacks.
In a telephone conversation between Iraqi Prime Minister Biden and Mustafa al-Kadhimi on Tuesday, the two leaders agreed that “those responsible for such attacks should be held fully accountable,” the White House report said.
Dennis Ross, a former U.S. high-ranking diplomat who has worked on Middle East politics under several presidents, said the administration has reduced the risk of friction with the Iraqi government when it hits Syrian targets.
“Strikes by militias across the Syrian border could reduce the risk of retaliation against the Iraqi government,” Ross said. tweeted.
Dan De Luce and Mosheh Gains from Washington reported; Ali Arouzi reported from London; Amin Hossein Khodadadi reported from Tehran; and Charlene Gubash from Cairo.
The Associated Press contributed.
Ali Arouzi, Amin Hossein Khodadadi and Charlene Gubash consented.