The United States carried out its first military action on Thursday under, targeting infrastructure used by Iranian-backed militant groups in Syria in response to recent rocket attacks in Iraq. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters traveling with him that he had recommended the attack to Biden, who authorized it in a phone call Thursday morning.
“The operation sends an unequivocal message: President Biden will act to protect US coalition personnel,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a statement.They have targeted US forces in Iraq and Syria for years, most recently in a rocket attack in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil last week that wounded four US contractors and a military service member.
The attacks destroyed multiple facilities at a border checkpoint in al Bukamal, Syria, used by several Iranian-backed militant groups, includingand Kataib Sayyid al Shuhada, according to Kirby.
The Pentagon spokesman did not name any casualties, but the UK-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Friday 22 people were killed in the attacks, which it said had hit three trucks carrying ammunition from Iraq to Syria.
The organization, which relies on a wide network of sources on the ground in Syria and generally provides reliable information, said all those killed were believed to be members of Iranian-backed militias, most of them from Kataib Hezbollah. The Observatory said the death toll is likely to rise as some of the injured are in serious condition. The group’s sources said that immediately after the attacks, Iranian-backed groups rushed to evacuate several sites in al Bukamal, fearing further US attacks.
Carefully chosen goal
In the first military strike of his presidency, Biden approved a target along the Syrian-Iraqi border that would serve as revenge forendanger American personnel, but fail to escalate tension with Tehran as it attempts to bring the Islamic Republic back to .
An administration official confirmed that Biden’s team had selected the targets as part of a calibrated response aimed at accomplishing three things: sending a signal to Iran that the new U.S. president would not tolerate rocket attacks that they put into danger to US personnel; Avoid angering US partners in Iraq who need to maintain good relations with both Tehran and Washington, and avoid provoking Iran to retaliate further.
Two former Trump administration officials told CBS News that the al Bukamal area has been the target of dozens of Israeli attacks in recent months because it serves as a transshipment point for Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Syria and Iraq. Both officials acknowledged the site selection with approval.
One of the former officials said that “it is easier to send messages there because we are less exposed.”
The Biden administration’s attack on Iran-backed militias follows its firstabout US hostages in the country, as well as their public offer made through European diplomats to restart talks on Tehran’s nuclear program. Both diplomatic initiatives took place last week.
Last week, a rocket attack in Erbil, northern Iraq, killed a contractor, who was not a US citizen, and wounded four US contractors and a US service member. A total of eight contractors were injured, two serious enough to require evacuation.
The United States had evidence that the attack was carried out with equipment supplied by Iran. The attack on Erbil consisted of 14 rockets, with six more remaining on the launcher’s rails.
The most recent airstrike against Iranian-backed militias was in December 2019, which. There was no immediate response from Iranian officials to the US attack on Thursday.
Eleanor Watson and Tucker Reals contributed reporting.