Amid rising tensions in the Middle East, the United States has launched air strikes against pro-Iranian militia groups in eastern Syria, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has confirmed. The move comes in response to drone and rocket strikes against U.S. military bases in Syria and Iraq over the past ten days. Austin issued a statement late Thursday saying President Joe Biden had authorized the action “to make clear that the United States will not tolerate such attacks and will defend itself, its personnel and its interests.”
Senior Pentagon officials said the facilities attacked were weapons and ammunition storage dumps near the Syrian town of Abu Kamal, on the border with Iraq. The attacks, carried out with precision missiles launched from F-16 fighters, took place early Friday morning in Syria.
The airstrikes are designed to send a strong message to Iran to stop the anti-U.S. activities of the militia groups it backs, but limited enough not to trigger an escalation of violence in the region at a time when tensions are running high over the war between Israel and Hamas. “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,” Austin said.
More than 14 attacks on U.S. positions have been recorded in Iraq and four in Syria, resulting in the death of a U.S. contractor in Iraq as a result of a heart attack. A further 21 military personnel have suffered minor wounds. In addition, the destroyer USS Carney intercepted a rocket and drone launch in the Red Sea, fired by Houthi militias in Yemen allied with Iran. The Defense Department stressed that the ship was not the target of the attack, which launched in a northerly direction, possibly towards Israel.
Washington believes that the attacks were coordinated by the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and related pro-Iranian militias. The Pentagon also suspects that Tehran is behind the campaign, which began after Hamas killed more than 1,400 people in Israel on October 7 and Washington pledged to provide the government of Benjamin Netanyahu with whatever it needs to defeat the extremist Palestinian militia. Biden himself issued a stern warning to Iran on Wednesday, stating that the U.S. would “respond swiftly” to any attack.
In an address to the UN General Assembly Thursday, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian warned that if the Israeli offensive in the Strip is not stopped, the United States “will not be spared from this fire.” Washington maintains a contingent of 900 troops in Syria and 2,500 in Iraq, both tasked with advising local forces against a possible resurgence of Islamist militias.
“Iran wants to hide its hand”
“Iran wants to hide its hand and deny its role in these attacks against our forces. We will not let them,” Austin added. " If attacks by Iran’s proxies against U.S. forces continue, we will not hesitate to take further necessary measures to protect our people.”
Austin stated that the “narrowly tailored strikes in self-defense” had very specific objectives and were launched solely to “protect and defend U.S. personnel in Iraq and Syria.”
“They are separate and distinct from the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, and do not constitute a shift in our approach to the Israel-Hamas conflict,” the defense secretary emphasized. We continue to urge all state and non-state entities not to take action that would escalate into a broader regional conflict.”
Washington fears that its forces could continue to be the target of increasingly frequent and more serious attacks in the region as the conflict between Israel and Hamas drags on and the number of civilian casualties caused by Israeli bombardments of the Gaza strip rises. To prevent such strikes, the U.S. has announced the deployment of a THAAD (Thermal High Altitude Area Defense) system and an unspecified number of Patriot batteries. This hardware will be stationed in the Middle East, in places that Pentagon spokesman General Pat Ryder did not wish to specify, although he underlined that “it will not be in Israel.”
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