U.S. air strikes ‘kill 11’ in Syria
Pentagon said air strikes were carried out in retaliation for drone attack on US-led coalition base that killed a US contractor, injured another, and wounded five US soldiers.
The United States military carried out multiple air strikes in eastern Syria U.S. air strikes ‘kill 11’ in Syria against Iran-aligned groups who it blamed for a deadly drone attack that killed a contractor, injured another, and wounded five US troops.
Although American forces stationed in Syria have been targeted by drones before, fatalities are extremely rare.
The US raids, which a United Kingdom-based war monitor said killed 11 pro-Iranian fighters, were in retaliation for an unmanned aerial vehicle assault against a US-led coalition base near Hassakeh, in northeastern Syria, at 01:38pm (10:38 GMT), the Pentagon said in a statement late on Thursday.
US intelligence assessed the attacking drone was Iranian in origin. US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said the attacks targeted groups affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGG) in eastern Syria.
“The airstrikes were conducted in response to today’s attack as well as a series of recent attacks against Coalition forces in Syria by groups affiliated with the IRGC,” Austin said in a statement.
Austin said he authorised the retaliatory strikes 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. No group will strike our troops with impunity.”
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), six Iranian-backed fighters were killed in the American strikes in the eastern city of Deir Az Zor.
The SOHR added 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.
Iran’s state Press TV, saying no Iranian had been killed in the attack, quoted local sources as denying the target was an Iran-aligned military post, but 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 deescalate the crisis appeared to begin immediately around the strikes. Qatar’s state-run news agency reported a call between its foreign minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani, and Jake Sullivan, the US national security adviser. Doha has been an interlocutor between Iran and the US recently amid tensions over Tehran’s nuclear program.
Qatar’s foreign minister also spoke around the same time with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian.
US forces entered Syria in 2015, backing allied forces in their fight against the ISIL (ISIS) group.
The US maintains the base that was attacked near Hassakeh, while there are an estimated 900 US troops 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 oil fields.
“These precision strikes are intended to protect and defend US personnel. The United States took proportionate and deliberate action intended to limit the risk of escalation and minimize casualties,” the defence department said in a statement.
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 state-run SANA news agency did not immediately acknowledge any US strikes.
Syria’s mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
There was no immediate reaction from Iran over the strikes.
Two of the injured US troops were treated at the base in Syria while three other wounded US soldiers and the US contractor were evacuated to a coalition medical facility in Iraq, the defence department said.
The attack comes just weeks after the top US general, Mark Milley, visited northeast 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 Iranian-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, cautioned 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 warned 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, adding Iran allegedly launched 78 attacks on US positions in Syria since January 2021.
“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 UAVs were shot down while the remaining drone hit the compound, injuring two members of the Syrian Free Army forces – part of the anti-ISIL coalition.
US officials believe drone and rocket attacks against its forces are being directed by Iran-backed militia in Syria.
“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.”
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, an expert with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.