The US has carried out an air strike against Iranian-linked militia groups in eastern Syria in retaliation for recent attacks on US and coalition personnel in Iraq, the Pentagon said on Thursday.
The military action was the first ordered by President Joe Biden and was described by John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, as a proportionate response to the recent attacks.
“At President Biden’s direction, US military forces earlier this evening conducted air strikes against infrastructure utilised by Iranian-backed militant groups in eastern Syria,” Kirby said in a statement.
Kirby said the US strike had “destroyed multiple facilities located at a border control point used by a number of Iranian-backed militant groups”.
A defence department official said it was believed that “up to a handful” of people had been killed in the operation, which was authorised by Biden on Thursday morning.
In recent weeks, Shia militia groups have claimed responsibility for attacks aimed at 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 American and coalition personnel,” said Kirby, adding the US had acted “in a deliberate manner that aims to de-escalate the overall situation in both eastern Syria and Iraq”.
The military action comes as the Biden administration is seeking to open talks with Iran to revive a multi-party 2015 accord that sought to limit Tehran’s nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief.
The Pentagon named two of the groups targeted as Kait’ib Hizbollah and Kait’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, neither of which were among the groups that claimed responsibility for a number of recent attacks.
“Our assessment is that the various groups that claim responsibility are just front groups established to help deny attribution by the established groups,” said the defence official, who added the US had found no evidence that the attack on Erbil had been directed by Iran, however.
Phillip Smyth, an expert at The Washington Institute who has contacts with militia in the region, said the two groups targeted were “unambiguously backed by Iranian forces”.
He said the Biden administration’s decision to target the two groups in Syria rather than in Iraq was aimed at avoiding significant collateral damage or stoking nationalist outrage in Iraq, which has previously 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 Hizbollah, which he said itself was formed in the first decade of this century from forces loyal to Iran.
He said the Biden administration had targeted Shia militias in Syria because they were heavily concentrated in the area and constituted what he described as the “weak underbelly for Iranian-backed forces in Iraq”.
“These strikes protect Iraqi prime minister [Mustafa al-]Kadhimi from blowback in Iraq,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
The air strikes in Syria come a little more than a year after Donald Trump ordered the killing of Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani in January 2020 as retaliation for the killing of a US contractor in Iraq.
The attack on Iraqi soil, which also killed a senior Iraqi militia leader, generated a backlash to US troops stationed in the country and was criticised by some as an overreaction that helped galvanise support for Iranian-backed militia groups.
In the months since, US forces in Iraq have struggled to defend themselves against attacks — some involving rockets — and have even withdrawn from some poorly defended bases.