The United States military has carried out multiple air strikes in eastern Syria against Iran-aligned groups that it blamed for a deadly drone attack that killed a contractor, injured another and wounded five US soldiers.
Although American forces stationed in Syria have been targeted by drones before, fatalities are rare.
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The US raids, which a United Kingdom-based war monitor said killed 11 pro-Iranian fighters, were in retaliation for a drone attack on Thursday against a US-led coalition base near Hassakeh in northeastern Syria at 1:38pm (10:38 GMT), the Pentagon said in a statement.
US intelligence assessed the attacking drone was Iranian in origin. Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin said the US then targeted groups affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, adding that he authorised the retaliatory raids at the direction of US President Joe Biden.
“As President Biden has made clear, we will take all necessary measures to defend our people and will always respond at a time and place of our choosing,” the defence secretary said in a statement. “No group will strike our troops with impunity.”
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, six Iran-backed fighters were killed in the US attack in the eastern city of Deir Az Zor.
The Syrian war monitor added that two other fighters were killed in a US attack on a post near the town of Mayadeen and another strike killed three at a military post near the town of Boukamal along the border with Iraq. The reports could not be confirmed.
After the US air strikes, Lebanon’s pro-Iranian TV channel Al Mayadeen reported that a US base at the Al-Omar oilfield in Syria’s northeast had been targeted with a missile attack.
But White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said no American personnel were hurt in Friday’s attack.
“It is not uncommon when we take a retaliatory strike like this for them to answer right back with some ineffective rocket fire, and these were largely, completely ineffective,” Kirby told the MSNBC news channel on Friday. “Nobody was hurt, no US casualties at all.”
‘Reserve their right to respond’
Iran’s state Press TV said no Iranian had been killed in the US attack. It quoted local sources as denying the target was an Iran-aligned military post but saying a rural development centre and a grain facility near a military airport were hit.
“A military source in Syria told Press TV that the resistance groups reserve their right to respond to the American attack and will take reciprocal action,” it said.
Diplomacy to de-escalate the crisis appeared to begin immediately. Qatar’s state-run news agency reported a call between its foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani, and Jake Sullivan, the US national security adviser. Doha has been an interlocutor recently between Iran and the US over Tehran’s nuclear programme.
Qatar’s foreign minister also spoke about the same time with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian.
US troops entered Syria in 2015 to back local forces fighting the ISIL (ISIS) group.
The US maintains the base that was attacked near Hassakeh. An estimated 900 US troops are deployed in the country and even more contractors, including in Syria’s north, south and east.
Overnight, videos on social media purported to show explosions in Syria’s Deir Az Zor, a strategic province that borders Iraq and contains oilfields.
“These precision strikes are intended to protect and defend US personnel,” the Pentagon said in a statement. “The United States took proportionate and deliberate action intended to limit the risk of escalation and minimize casualties.”
Iran-backed militia groups and Syrian forces control the area, which has also seen suspected air attacks by Israel in recent months, allegedly targeting Iranian supply routes.
Syria’s mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Two of the injured US soldiers were treated at the base in Syria while three other wounded soldiers and the US contractor were evacuated to a coalition medical facility in Iraq, the Pentagon said.
The attack was carried out just weeks after the top US general, Mark Milley, visited northeastern Syria to assess the mission against ISIL and the risk to US forces.
The number of casualties from Thursday’s drone attack is highly unusual, even though attempted attacks against US forces in Syria are somewhat common.
General Erik Kurilla, who oversees US forces in the Middle East as the head of Central Command, said US troops have come under attack by Iran-backed groups about 78 times since the beginning of 2021.
Kurilla, who testified to the US House of Representatives Armed Services Committee earlier on Thursday, had a warning about Iran’s fleet of drones.
“The Iranian regime now holds the largest and most capable unmanned aerial vehicle force in the region,” he said.
Kurilla said American forces could carry out additional strikes if needed. “We are postured for scalable options in the face of any additional Iranian attacks,” he said.
“What Iran does to hide its hand is they use Iranian proxies,” Kurilla said.
‘Support for local proxies’
Three drones targeted a US base in January in Syria’s Al-Tanf region. The US military said two of the aircraft were shot down while the remaining drone hit the compound, injuring two members of the Syrian Free Army, part of the anti-ISIL coalition.
US officials said they believe drone and rocket attacks against their forces are being directed by Iran-backed militia in Syria.
Since the US drone strike that killed Revolutionary Guard General Qassem Soleimani in 2020, Iran has sought “to make life difficult for US forces stationed east of the Euphrates”, said Hamidreza Azizi with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
“Iran increased its support for local proxies in Deir Az Zor while trying to ally with the tribal forces in the area,” Azizi wrote in a recent analysis. “Due to the geographical proximity, Iraqi groups also intensified their activities in the border strip with Syria and in the Deir Az Zor province.”