President Joe Biden on Thursday directed U.S. military air strikes in eastern Syria against facilities belonging to what the Pentagon said were militia, in a calibrated response to rocket attacks against U.S. targets in Iraq.
The strikes, which were first reported by Reuters, appeared to be limited in scope, potentially lowering the risk of escalation.
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, U.S. military forces earlier this evening conducted airstrikes against infrastructure utilized by Iranian-backed militant groups in eastern Syria,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby claimed 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,” Kirby said.
He added that the strikes destroyed multiple facilities at a border control point used by a number of militant groups, including Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH) and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada (KSS).
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.
The official added that 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 U.S. strike.
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.
It was not clear how, or whether, the strike might affect U.S. efforts to coax Iran back into a negotiation about both sides resuming compliance with the agreement.
In the Feb. 15 attack, rockets hit the U.S. 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 U.S. service member.
Another salvo struck a base hosting U.S. forces north of Baghdad days later, hurting at least one contractor.
Rockets hit Baghdad’s Green Zone on Monday, which houses the U.S. Embassy and other diplomatic missions.