President Joe Biden on Thursday directed U.S. military air strikes in eastern Syria against facilities belonging to what the Pentagon said were Iran-backed militia, in a calibrated response to rocket attacks against U.S. targets in Iraq, Reuters reported.
The strikes appeared to be limited in scope, potentially lowering the risk of escalation. It was not immediately clear what damage was caused.
Syrian state-owned Ekhbariya TV said the strikes had been at dawn against several targets near the Syrian-Iraqi border, and quoted a medical source at a hospital in the area and other unspecified local sources as saying 17 people had been killed. That toll could not be independently confirmed.
Biden’s decision to strike only in Syria and not in Iraq, at least for now, gives Iraq’s government some breathing room as it carries out its own investigation into a Feb. 15 attack that wounded Americans.
“At President (Joe) Biden’s direction, U.S. military forces earlier this evening conducted air strikes against infrastructure utilized by Iranian-backed militant groups in eastern Syria,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a statement.
“President Biden will act to protect American and Coalition personnel. At the same time, we have acted in a deliberate manner that aims to de-escalate the overall situation in both eastern Syria and Iraq,” Kirby said.
He said the strikes destroyed multiple facilities at a border control point used by a number of Iranian-backed militant groups, including Kata’ib Hezbollah and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada.
After the air strikes, the Iranian and Syrian foreign ministers spoke and underlined “the need of the West to adhere to U.N. Security Council resolutions regarding Syria,” Iranian government website Dolat.ir said.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the decision to carry out the strikes was meant to send a signal that, while the United States wanted to punish the militias, it did not want the situation to spiral into a bigger conflict.
The official said Biden was presented with a range of options and one of the more limited responses was chosen.