U.S. air strikes against Iran-backed militias in eastern Syria killed at least one fighter and wounded several others in what U.S. officials said was a calibrated response to rocket attacks against American personnel in Iraq.
The attacks, which took place early on Friday Middle Eastern time, were deliberately limited in scope and designed to show that President Joe Biden’s administration will act tough but wants to avoid a major regional escalation, U.S. officials said.
Washington and Tehran are seeking maximum leverage in attempts to return to the Iran nuclear deal secured in 2015 but abandoned by former President Donald Trump in 2018, after which regional tensions soared and fears of full-scale conflict grew.
The U.S. strikes targeted militia sites on the Syrian side of the Iraqi-Syrian border, where groups backed by Iran control an important crossing for weapons, personnel and goods.
Western officials and some Iraqi officials accuse Iran-backed groups of involvement in deadly rocket attacks against U.S. sites and personnel in Iraq in the last month.
An Iraqi militia official close to Iran said Friday’s strikes killed at least one fighter and wounded four more, hitting positions of the powerful Kataib Hezbollah paramilitary group along the border.
Local sources and one medical source in eastern Syria said at least 17 people had been killed, but gave no further details. That toll could not be confirmed.
The U.S. strikes followed an uptick in anti-U.S. attacks in Iraq. The most serious incident, which killed a non-American contractor at a U.S. military based at Erbil International Airport in Kurdish-run northern Iraq on February 15, was followed in the days after by rockets on a base hosting U.S. forces and near the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.
Biden’s decision to strike only in Syria and not in Iraq, at least for now, gives Iraq’s government some breathing room as it carries out its own investigation into the Erbil attack, which also wounded Americans.
Kataib Hezbollah has denied any involvement in recent attacks against U.S. interests and did not immediately comment. Iran also denies involvement in attacks on U.S. sites.
Several attacks, including the one on Erbil airport, have been claimed by little-known groups which some Iraqi and Western officials say are a front for the established Iran-backed groups like Kataib Hezbollah.
They say this is a way for Iranian allies to harass U.S. forces without being held accountable.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a statement that U.S. forces had conducted air strikes authorised by Biden “against infrastructure utilized by Iranian-backed militant groups in eastern Syria.”
“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,” Kirby said.
He said 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 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.
The official said Biden was presented with a range of options and one of the more limited responses was chosen.
It was not clear how, or whether, the strike might affect U.S. efforts to coax Iran back into negotiations about both sides resuming compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal.
Since late 2019, the United States has carried out high-profile strikes against Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq and Syria in response to sometimes deadly rocket attacks against U.S.-led forces.
Under the Trump administration, rising tensions culminated 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.