Two Iranian-controlled sites in eastern Syria were hit by U.S. airstrikes in the early hours of Friday in retaliation for a flurry of attacks against U.S. bases in Syria and Iraq.
The Pentagon sent two F-16 fighter jets to attack a weapons storage facility and an ammunition plant near Abu Kamal.
Both sites were run by Iran‘s Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Pentagon said.
The Pentagon said that the strikes were not connected to the Israel-Hamas war, but analysts said they were designed to send a warning to Iran not to take advantage of the regional turmoil.
Iran’s Foreign Minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian, said at the United Nations on Thursday that if Israel’s offensive against Hamas does not end, the United States will ‘not be spared from this fire’.
There was no report of any casualties in the 4:30am strike, and a U.S. official told Voice of America’s Jeff Seldin that the locations were chosen because there were no civilians present.
It is the first time since March that the Biden administration has authorized strikes against Iranian-linked targets in Syria and Iraq, and comes after a series of assaults beginning on October 17.
The attacks against a series of U.S.-controlled sites in the region resulted in minor injuries to 21 U.S. service members, and the death of an American contractor, who died from a heart attack during one attack.
America strikes back: US warplanes conduct airstrikes against Iranian proxy forces in Syria in retaliation for attacks against US troops in Middle East
‘The United States does not seek conflict and has no intention nor desire to engage in further hostilities, but these Iranian-backed attacks against U.S. forces are unacceptable and must stop,’ said Lloyd Austin, the Defense Secretary, in a statement announcing the Syrian strikes.
‘If attacks by Iran’s proxies against U.S. forces continue, we will not hesitate to take further necessary measures to protect our people.’
The United States has 2,500 troops in Iraq, and 900 more in neighboring Syria.
The U.S. personnel are there to advise and assist local forces in combating Islamic State, which in 2014 seized swathes of territory in both countries.
On Tuesday, an Iranian proxy group in Iraq said it would expand attacks on U.S. bases in the region.
President Joe Biden on Wednesday warned Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei not to attack U.S. forces in the region, and said there would be consequences.
‘My warning to the Ayatollah was that if they continue to move against those troops, we will respond,’ said Biden.
A Pentagon spokesman, Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, said any response would come ‘at a time and place of our choosing’.
The U.S. strikes on Friday reflect the Biden administration’s determination to maintain a delicate balance.
The U.S. wants to hit Iranian-backed groups suspected of targeting the U.S. as strongly as possible to deter future aggression, possibly fueled by Israel’s war against Hamas, while also working to avoid inflaming the region and provoking a wider conflict.
The al-Asad military base is pictured in January 2020, after an Iranian-backed attack
According to the Pentagon, since October 17 there have been at least 12 attacks on U.S. bases and personnel in Iraq, and four in Syria.
Ryder said 21 U.S. personnel were injured in two of those assaults.
In Iraq, the al-Asad airbase has come under frequent attack by rockets and drones since October 17.
The al-Harir airbase has also been targeted, and another location in Erbil.
On October 19, militants launched two rockets at Baghdad international airport, where U.S. troops are stationed – one rocket was intercepted, and one hit an empty building.
In Syria, the al-Tanf garrison has been often targeted: the site is where an American contractor died of a heart attack, and an attack destroyed an aircraft hangar and small airplane.
Iranian-backed militias have also claimed to have attacked the al-Omar oil field in Deir el-Zour province, and the al-Shaddadi base, in the countryside of the northeastern province of Hasakah.
Renad Mansour, a senior research fellow at the Chatham House, said the Iran-backed groups in Iraq are split between those that are also political parties and have a stake in the Iraqi political system and the ‘vanguard’ groups that are purely militant and tend to be more tightly controlled by Iran.
The latter, he said, have been used in the past as foot sodiers in regional conflicts, including in Yemen and Syria.
‘This is what they’re designed to do,’ Mansour told AP.
‘The question is more, will Iran and some of the leaders of these groups decide it’s in their interest to escalate?’