US conducts first military operation under Biden, hits Iran-backed groups in Syria
In the first military action conducted under President Joe Biden, the US on Thursday carried out airstrikes against Iran-backed militant groups in eastern Syria in retaliation for recent attacks on American and coalition personnel in Iraq.
“At President Joe Biden’s direction, US military forces, earlier this evening, launched airstrikes against infrastructure utilised by Iranian-backed militant groups in eastern Syria,” John Kirby, the US defence department spokesperson, said in a statement.
He added that the strikes had “destroyed multiple facilities located at a border control point used by a number of Iranian-backed militant groups including Kait’ib Hezbollah and Kait’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada (which had previously claimed responsibility for attacks on US forces)”.
The US had not released any casualty figures or estimates. But a war monitor, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, has said 22 members of the militant groups were killed and the toll could climb because some of the others had suffered severe injuries.
Kirby said the US military operation was in response to “recent attacks against American and coalition personnel in Iraq” and was “proportionate”, and conducted alongside diplomatic measure, including consultations with coalition partners.
A civilian contractor with the US-led military coalition was killed and a US service personnel was among six people injured in a rocket attack on an airport in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, last week. US troops have a military facility adjacent to the airport.
A pro-Iran militant group that calls itself “Saraya Awliya Al-Dam” had claimed responsibility. Other Iran-backed groups have carried out attacks on US personnel and facilities in the past, as tensions have escalated in the region between US and Iranian forces directly and with Iran’s proxies.
Analysts had called the Erbil attack as an early test for the Biden administration’s foreign policy in the region, specially as it seeks to re-engage with Iran on the 2015 nuclear deal — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — that the US had left under former President Donald Trump.
Michael Knights, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote at the time in an article in Politico that President Biden is “squarely in the middle of a major foreign policy test as president, and while it has gone largely unremarked inside the US, the Middle East is watching closely to see how he responds to an attack on US forces”.
Biden responded with airstrikes. Kirby said the US military operation sends “an unambiguous message: 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”.