The United States carried out an airstrike against Iranian-linked militias in eastern Syria in retaliation for recent attacks on US and coalition personnel in Iraq, the Pentagon said Thursday.
The military action was the first ordered by President Joe Biden and has been described by John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, as a proportionate response to the recent attacks.
“Under President Biden’s leadership, US military forces earlier this evening carried out airstrikes against infrastructure used by Iranian-backed militant groups in eastern Syria,” Kirby said in a statement.
Kirby said the US strike had “destroyed several facilities at a border checkpoint used by a number of Iranian-backed militant groups.”
A Defense Department official said it was believed that “up to a handful” of people had been killed in the operation, which was authorized by Biden on Thursday morning.
In recent weeks, Shiite militias have claimed responsibility for attacks on US facilities in Iraq, including one in Erbil last week that killed a civilian contractor and injured several others, including a member of the US military.
“The operation sends an unambiguous message: President Biden will act to protect US and coalition personnel,” Kirby said, adding that the United States had acted “in a deliberate manner aimed at defusing the general situation in eastern Syria and Iraq “.
Military action comes as the Biden administration seeks to open talks with Iran to relaunch a 2015 multi-party deal that aimed to limit Tehran’s nuclear program in return for sanctions relief.
The Pentagon has named two of the targeted groups as Kait’ib Hezbollah and Kait’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, who were not among the groups that have claimed responsibility for a number of recent attacks.
“Our assessment is that the various groups claiming responsibility are just front groups created to help deny attribution by established groups,” said the defense official, who added that the United States does not ‘had found no evidence that Erbil’s attack was Iran-led, however.
Phillip Smyth, an expert from the Washington Institute who has contact with militias in the region, said the two target groups were “unambiguously supported by Iranian forces”.
He said the Biden administration’s decision to target the two groups in Syria rather than Iraq was aimed at avoiding significant collateral damage or stoking nationalist outrage in Iraq, which has already voted to oust US troops from the country.
Smyth said Kait’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada started in 2013 as a splinter group of Kait’ib Hezbollah, which he says was formed in the first decade of this century by forces loyal to the Iran.
He said the Biden administration had targeted Shia militias in Syria because they were heavily concentrated in the region and constituted what he described as “the weak underbelly of Iranian-backed forces in Iraq.”
The airstrikes in Syria come just over a year after Donald Trump ordered the murder of Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani in January 2020 in retaliation for the murder of an American contractor in Iraq.
The attack on Iraqi soil, which also killed a senior Iraqi militia leader, sparked a backlash against US troops stationed in the country and was criticized by some as an overreaction that helped galvanize support to militias supported by Iran.
In the months that followed, US forces in Iraq struggled to defend themselves against attacks – some involving rockets – and even withdrew from some poorly defended bases.