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U.S. strikes Iran-linked sites in Syria after attacks on American troops

A U.S. military convoy hauls equipment from a base in northern Syria in October 2019.  (Alice Martins/For The Washington Post)
By Missy Ryan Washington Post

The U.S. military conducted airstrikes on two sites in eastern Syria associated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and “affiliated groups” after attacks on U.S. personnel there and in neighboring Iraq, the Pentagon said late Thursday.

Officials said the strikes were conducted by F-15 and F-16 fighter jets that dropped precision munitions on two facilities storing ammunition and weapons near the town of Bukamal. The airstrikes amplified a long-running feud between the United States and Iran at a moment of extreme tension in the Middle East, with the renewed conflict between U.S. ally Israel and Iran-backed Hamas in the Gaza Strip fueling concern that violence will spread.

On Friday, the Pentagon said in a statement that both facilities were destroyed and that U.S. military officials “currently assess there were no casualties in the strikes.”

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the “narrowly tailored strikes” were a response to nearly 20 assaults, beginning Oct. 17, that he said had resulted in minor injuries to 21 U.S. service members. An American contractor died after suffering cardiac arrest during one incident, what officials have said was a false alarm warning of an incoming attack at a U.S. base in Iraq.

“The United States does not seek conflict and has no intention nor desire to engage in further hostilities, but these Iranian-backed attacks against U.S. forces are unacceptable and must stop,” Austin said in a statement, adding, “If attacks by Iran’s proxies against U.S. forces continue, we will not hesitate to take further necessary measures to protect our people.”

On Friday, a Defense Department official said that American forces detected a “one-way attack drone” a few miles from the al-Assad military base, where U.S. forces are located in western Iraq. They “successfully shot it down without further incident,” the official said.

The airstrikes Thursday follow a warning by President Biden – who has faced increasing pressure to retaliate for the attacks on American personnel – to Iran’s supreme leader that the United States would act if further provoked.

The United States has for many years faced assaults from Iranian-linked militants in Iraq, where the Pentagon maintains a force of some 2,500 troops, and in Syria, where U.S. personnel number around 900. The Biden administration has authorized previous strikes against Iranian-linked targets in Syria, including in March.

The Biden administration has expressed strong support for Israel after the Oct. 7 cross-border attack by Hamas, which killed more than 1,400 people, expediting shipments of munitions and other arms. It has also dispatched two aircraft carrier strike groups to the region in an effort to avert an expansion of the conflict. Officials are now urging caution as Israel prepares for an expected ground offensive in Gaza, where health authorities say the death toll has surpassed 7,000.

Austin said the strikes announced Thursday “do not constitute a shift in our approach to the Israel-Hamas conflict.”

Speaking at the United Nations earlier in the day, Iran’s foreign minister cited the plight of Palestinian civilians trapped by the fighting and warned that the United States would not be “spared from this fire” if the conflict in Gaza intensifies. Most worrying for Israel and the United States is the armed Lebanese group Hezbollah, which is also supported by Iran.

Pentagon officials, speaking to reporters after the airstrikes were announced, said it was not immediately clear who, if anyone, had been killed or injured in the retaliatory operation, which they described as self-defense.

The officials, who like other officials spoke on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Defense Department, said Iran was responsible for the recent violence targeting American troops but stopped short of saying that Tehran had directed specific attacks.

“Iran is trying to hide its hand and maintain some level of deniability, and we are not allowing that to happen,” a senior defense official said. “We hold Iran accountable for the actions of groups that it trains and equips.”

Amid the increase in violence, the Pentagon has sought to bolster security measures for deployed U.S. troops, announcing the activation of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery and the movement of additional Patriot battalions into the region.

On Friday, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters said that the U.S. military was surging defensive systems into the Middle East as Israel expands its war in Gaza, with some already in place and others on the way. The Biden administration, he said, is “confident” it can protect U.S. troops in the region.

Asked whether the airstrikes announced Thursday could result in additional violence, the defense official said, “That would be a decision made in Tehran.”

“Our desire,” the official added, “is for Iran’s most senior leaders to direct their proxies and militias to cease these attacks on U.S. personnel in Iraq and Syria.”

Officials said the strikes were not coordinated with Israel.

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Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.