The attacks, which took place early on Friday Middle Eastern time, were limited in scope and designed to show that President Joe Biden’s administration will act firmly but wants to avoid a big regional escalation, US officials said.
Washington and Tehran are seeking maximum leverage in attempts to return to the Iran nuclear deal secured in 2015 but abandoned by former President Donald Trump in 2018, after which regional tensions soared and fears of full-scale conflict grew.
Russia, an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, condemned the strikes and called for “unconditional respect of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria.”
“What has happened is very dangerous and could lead to an escalation in the whole region,” a Russian parliamentarian, Vladimir Dzhabarov, was quoted as saying by RIA news agency.
The U.S. strikes targeted militia sites on the Syrian side of the Iraqi-Syrian border, where groups backed by Iran control an important crossing for weapons, personnel and goods.
Western officials and some Iraqi officials accuse Iran-backed groups of involvement in deadly rocket attacks against U.S. sites and personnel in Iraq in the last month.
An Iraqi militia official close to Iran said Friday’s strikes killed at least one fighter and wounded four more, hitting positions of the Kataib Hezbollah paramilitary group along the border.
Local sources and a medical source in eastern Syria told Reuters at least 17 people had been killed, but gave no further details. That toll could not be confirmed.
The strikes followed an increase in attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq. A non-American contractor was killed at a U.S. military based at Erbil International Airport in Kurdish-run northern Iraq on Feb. 15 and, in the days that followed, rockets were fired at a base hosting U.S. forces, and near the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.
Biden’s decision to strike only in Syria and not in Iraq gives Iraq’s government breathing room as it conducts its own investigation into the Erbil attack, which also wounded Americans.
Kataib Hezbollah has denied involvement in recent attacks against US interests and did not immediately comment on Friday’s air strikes. Iran denies involvement in attacks on US sites.
Several attacks, including the one on Erbil airport, have been claimed by little-known groups which some Iraqi and Western officials say are a front for established Iran-backed groups such as Kataib Hezbollah.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a statement that U.S. forces had conducted air strikes authorised by Biden “against infrastructure utilized by Iranian-backed militant groups in eastern Syria.”
“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 Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada.
A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the decision to carry out the strikes was meant to signal that, while the United States wanted to punish the militias, it did not want the situation to spiral into a bigger conflict.
It was not clear how, or whether, the strike might affect US efforts to coax Iran back into negotiations about both sides resuming compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal.
Since late 2019, the United States has carried out high-profile strikes against Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq and Syria in response to rocket attacks against U.S.-led forces. One of the US strikes killed Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani.