U.S. warplanes launched airstrikes on a weapons-storage facility in eastern Syria that allegedly belonged to Iran and its affiliates, a fresh show of military force after previous strikes two weeks ago failed to stem a surge in attacks against U.S. forces in the region.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement that the strike by two F-15 warplanes was “a response to a series of attacks against U.S. personnel in Iraq and Syria” by Iranian-backed forces. President Joe Biden “has no higher priority than the safety of U..S personnel, and he directed today’s action to make clear that the United States will defend itself, its personnel, and its interests,” Austin said.
The latest round of strikes came hours after the Pentagon reported there had been at least 41 attacks on American military personnel in Iraq and Syria since Oct. 17. Officials say at least 46 of its forces have been injured, some with traumatic brain injuries.
Austin, briefing reporters while on a flight to India Wednesday night, said that “if the attacks against our forces don’t decrease or stop, we will take additional measures. We’re going to do everything we can to protect our troops and we’re absolutely serious about that.”
A senior military official briefing reporters on Wednesday said the target was a warehouse operated by Iranian’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps the U.S. had been monitoring for a time. The U.S. bombs set off a series of secondary explosions that indicated the possible storage of armed drones, rockets or artillery shells — all items that had been used to attack U.S. forces in the region.
The official said some Iranian personnel were seen at the site before the attack but their fate was unknown. There were no civilian casualties, one of the officials said.
A senior defense official emphasized to reporters that the strike was not aimed at Iranian proxy groups but the Guard Corps itself and they will continue as needed.
U.S. officials have said they view the attacks on U.S. forces — and the American retaliation — as separate from the Israel-Hamas war that broke out after Hamas militants attacked Israel on Oct. 7. But the violence shines a new spotlight on concerns that the war with Hamas — labeled a terrorist group by the U.S. and the European Union — could spread into a broader conflagration.
“Our goal is to make sure that the conflict that’s in Gaza doesn’t expand and become a region-wide conflict,” Austin said. “To this point, we don’t think that that’s happened and we’re going to do everything in our power to make sure it doesn’t happen.”
Earlier Wednesday, the Defense Department confirmed that Houthi rebels in Yemen had shot down a U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drone off the country’s coast, in a further sign of how U.S. forces were increasingly coming into contact with Iranian-backed groups.
Last weekend, Secretary of State Antony Blinken made an unannounced visit to Baghdad, in part to bolster a partnership under which Iraq is hosting about 2,500 U.S. troops. That arrangement has come under strain against the backdrop of the repeated attacks on American forces.
“I made very clear that the attacks, the threats coming from militia that are aligned with Iran are totally unacceptable and we will take every necessary step to protect our people,” Blinken said.
Blinken is currently in South Korea after a meeting of Group of 7 foreign ministers in Tokyo. In a statement earlier Wednesday, the ministers agreed on the need for humanitarian “pauses” in Israel’s war with Hamas, according to a joint statement issued after the group met in Tokyo. Austin is on his way to New Delhi, where he’ll meet Blinken and their Indian counterparts to discuss regional security.
Since the Hamas attack on Israel, the Biden administration has sent military forces to the region, including aircraft carriers, additional fighter jets and troops as part of a broad effort aimed at making Iran and other actors think twice before escalating the war further. The risk is the U.S. presence will only spur the outcome that U.S. officials want to avoid.
“The United States is fully prepared to take further necessary measures to protect our people and our facilities,” Austin said. “We urge against any escalation.”
The U.S. earlier said it was deploying 900 troops to the Middle East as regional tensions rise, including Thaad and Patriot air defense operators. None of the troops, who are already deployed or are being sent, are going to Israel, Ryder added.
Tensions between the U.S. and Iran have been climbing since the Hamas attack on Israel. Iran’s foreign minister this week warned recently that new fronts would open against the U.S. if it keeps up unequivocal support for Israel, escalating a rhetorical back-and-forth with the U.S.