The US has carried out air strikes against Iran-linked militia groups in eastern Syria in retaliation for recent attacks on American and coalition personnel in Iraq.
The military action on Thursday was the first ordered by President Joe Biden since taking office and was described by John Kirby, Pentagon press secretary, as a proportionate response.
“At President Biden’s direction, US military forces earlier this evening conducted air strikes against infrastructure utilised by Iranian-backed militant groups in eastern Syria,” Kirby said in a statement.
He added that the US strikes had “destroyed multiple facilities located at a border control point used by a number of Iranian-backed militant groups”.
A defence department official said it was believed that “up to a handful” of people had been killed in the operation. Shia militia groups have claimed responsibility for attacks on US facilities in Iraq in recent weeks. A rocket attack last week killed a civilian contractor and injured several others, including a member of the US military.
The assault was viewed as the first foreign policy test for Biden as he seeks to reset US policy in the Middle East following the tumultuous Trump years. The Biden administration is seeking to re-engage with Iran over the nuclear deal Tehran signed with world powers and to de-escalate tensions in the region, but it also does not want to be seen as soft on the Islamic republic, which is accused of stoking instability through its support of militia groups. Washington has accused Iranian-backed Iraq militants of regularly launching attacks against US personnel and assets in Iraq, where about 2,500 American troops are based to support the fight against Isis and train Iraqi forces.
“The operation sends an unambiguous message: President Biden will act to protect American and coalition personnel,” said Kirby, adding that the US had acted “in a deliberate manner that aims to de-escalate the overall situation in both eastern Syria and Iraq”.
The Pentagon named two of the groups targeted as Kait’ib Hizbollah and Kait’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, neither of which were among the organisations that claimed responsibility for the recent attacks in Iraq.
“Our assessment is that the various groups that claim responsibility are just front groups established to help deny attribution by the established groups,” said the defence official, who added the US had found no evidence that the attack on Erbil had been directed by Iran.
Phillip Smyth, an expert at The Washington Institute think-tank who has contacts with militias in the region, said the targeted groups were “unambiguously backed by Iranian forces”.
Smyth said Kait’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada started in 2013 as a splinter group of Kait’ib Hizbollah, which he said was itself formed in the previous decade from forces loyal to Iran.
He said the Biden administration had targeted Shia militias in Syria rather than Iraq to avoid significant collateral damage or stoke nationalist outrage in Iraq, which has previously voted to oust US troops from the country. Smyth added the militias were heavily concentrated in the area, constituting a “weak underbelly for Iranian-backed forces”.
“These strikes protect Iraqi prime minister [Mustafa al-]Kadhimi from blowback in Iraq,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think-tank.
The air strikes came just over a year after Donald Trump, the former president, ordered the killing of Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani in retaliation for the killing of a US contractor in Iraq. The attack in Baghdad, which also killed a senior Iraqi militia leader, prompted a backlash against US troops in the country and was criticised as an overreaction that helped galvanise support for Iranian-backed groups.
US forces in Iraq have subsequently struggled to defend themselves against attacks — some involving rockets — and have withdrawn from some poorly defended bases.
Additional reporting by Andrew England in London
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