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American contractor killed in drone attack on base in Syria

U.S. President Joe Biden, left, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at a Cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 6.  (Yuri Gripas)
New York Times

New York Times

WASHINGTON – A U.S. contractor was killed and another contractor and five U.S. service members were injured when a self-destructing drone struck a maintenance facility on a coalition base in northeast Syria on Thursday, the Pentagon said in a statement.

In response, at President Joe Biden’s direction, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said he ordered airstrikes against facilities in eastern Syria used by groups affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, or IRGC.

U.S. intelligence analysts concluded that the drone was of “Iranian origin,” according to the Pentagon statement, which said the attack took place near Hasaka at 1:38 p.m. local time.

“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 released late Thursday.

“These precision strikes are intended to protect and defend U.S. personnel,” the statement said. “The United States took proportionate and deliberate action intended to limit the risk of escalation and minimize casualties.”

“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,” Austin said. “No group will strike our troops with impunity.”

The attacks are likely to stoke tensions with Iran, which Biden administration officials call the largest security threat in the Middle East.

“Iran’s vast and deeply resourced proxy forces spread instability throughout the region and threaten our regional partners,” Gen. Michael E. Kurilla, the head of the military’s Central Command, said in testimony to the House Armed Services Committee earlier Thursday.

Two of the wounded service members were treated on site, while the three other service members and the contractor were medically evacuated to coalition medical facilities in Iraq. The Pentagon did not identify the contractor who was killed, pending notification of family, a senior military official said.

America still has more than 900 troops, and hundreds more contractors, in Syria, working with Kurdish fighters to make sure there is no resurgence of the Islamic State group, which was ostensibly defeated as a self-declared caliphate in 2019, after five years of wreaking havoc across Iraq and Syria.

Iranian-backed militias have launched dozens of attacks at or near bases where U.S. troops are in the past year alone. U.S. and partner forces with a coalition that includes the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces have worked together to keep pressure on Islamic State group militants and to ensure that detained fighters do not end up back on the battlefield.

The Kurdish Syrian forces conduct targeted raids against Islamic State group members. They also guard more than 10,000 imprisoned Islamic State group fighters, while the Pentagon and U.S. troops provide air support, intelligence and reconnaissance.

With the Biden administration focused on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and a potential future conflict with China, the counter-Islamic State group military mission in Syria has become something of a back-burner issue.

The mission has received greater attention only when Iranian-backed militias or Islamic State group militants attack the U.S. troops who rotate in and out, for nine months at a time, across a handful of bases in northeast Syria, which Gen. Mark Milley, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited this month.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.