American fighter jets struck an Iranian weapons facility in eastern Syria on Wednesday, the Pentagon said, marking the latest use of military force in the Middle East as President Biden seeks to halt a surge in attacks on U.S. troops amid the war in Gaza and broader fears that any escalation could engulf the region in violence.
The announcement, by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, coincided with a disclosure that an American surveillance drone, an MQ-9 Reaper, had been shot down off the coast of Yemen by militants armed by, and closely aligned with, Tehran.
In a statement, Austin said that the operation in Syria, carried out by a pair of F-15 fighter jets, hit a storage facility used by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and affiliated groups. “We urge against any escalation,” he said, warning that President Biden, who authorized the airstrike, has “no higher priority than the safety of U.S. personnel” and is “fully prepared to take further necessary measures to protect our people and our facilities.”
Biden, in brief, blunt remarks Thursday, told reporters that the IRGC was targeted “because they struck us.” When asked if the United States intends to conduct additional strikes, he said, “If we have to.”
It was not immediately clear whether anyone was harmed in the what the Pentagon characterized as a “precision self-defense” response to the unyielding attacks on American personnel by Iranian proxies in Syria and Iraq. A senior U.S. military official, speaking on the condition of anonymity under the agency’s ground rules, told reporters Wednesday night there was no indication any civilians were killed. The facility in Deir al-Zour province was under observation for some time, the official said, noting that secondary explosions occurred after the strike, suggesting weapons were likely inside.
Less is known about the $30 million Reaper that was downed near Yemen. The senior U.S. military official attributed that attack to Houthi rebels, who control a large swath of the war-torn country. It occurred in international airspace over the Red Sea, he said. Last month, an American naval destroyer positioned there intercepted a barrage of missiles fired from Yemen in the direction of Israel.
Both incidents threaten to amplify the tension that has gripped much of the Middle East since war erupted between Israel and Hamas - another of Iran’s benefactors - after the militant group’s stunning cross-border attack Oct. 7. At Biden’s direction, U.S. officials, hoping to prevent the violence in Gaza from metastasizing, have responded cautiously to the dozens of attacks on American personnel since then.
U.S. warplanes carried out a similar operation in Syria late last month after Biden said he personally warned Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, that if Tehran continues to “move against” U.S. forces in the Middle East, “we will respond.” Since then, the attacks in Iraq and Syria have continued almost daily and now number at least 40 overall since the Gaza war began.
Critics of the administration’s approach have called the retaliatory strikes insufficient, arguing they won’t deter Iran. “Pin prick strikes against ammo dumps in the desert won’t do a damn thing to stop Iran from attacking our troops,” Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, wrote in a post on X after Wednesday’s announcement.
While the Pentagon has characterized the incidents, all involving a mix of one-way drones and rockets, as “harassing” in nature, about 45 U.S. troops have suffered some form of injury, raising concern that an American service member could be killed. A Defense Department spokesman, Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, said Monday that two individuals who suffered brain injuries in this wave of attacks have since been taken for observation and a higher level of care at a medical facility in Landstuhl, Germany. They initially had returned to duty, as all the others have.
Administration officials are deeply worried about Iran’s network of proxy forces throughout the region, some of whom have targeted U.S. forces sporadically for many years. Beyond Hamas, whose attack in Israel killed more than 1,400 people, Iran also supports the militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, and Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria.
In March, Biden approved airstrikes on Iranian proxy positions in Syria after a one-way attack drone hit a coalition military facility near Hasakah, in the northeast, killing a U.S. contractor and wounding five U.S. service members. The Pentagon assessed that the drone involved was Iranian in origin.
The Pentagon has surged warships, aircraft and personnel into the Middle East in an effort to deter any of those parties from attacking Israel as it continues operations in Gaza. On Wednesday, in an apparent show of force, a B-1B bomber escorted by F-16 fighter jets flew over the region for the second consecutive day, U.S. military officials said. That followed the rare disclosure on Sunday that a U.S. ballistic missile submarine had arrived in the Middle East - another apparent attempt to send a message to potential adversaries.
The Pentagon also disclosed last week that it is using Reaper drones, like the one downed off Yemen, to fly over Gaza in search of hostages.
About 2,500 U.S. troops are based in Iraq and 900 in Syria in an enduring mission to prevent the Islamic State group from gaining new footing in either country. Austin, in his statement, said those operations will continue.