Two US fighter jets struck weapons and ammunition facilities in Syria on Friday in retaliation for attacks on US forces by Iranian-backed militia in the past week.
US President Joe Biden ordered strikes on the two facilities used by Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps and its militia groups, the Pentagon said, warning the US will take additional measures if attacks by Iran's proxies continue.
US and coalition troops have been attacked at least 19 times in Iraq and in Syria by Iran-backed forces in the past week. Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Lebanon's Hezbollah are all backed by Tehran.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said at the United Nations on Thursday that if Israel's offensive against Hamas did not stop, the United States will "not be spared from this fire".
Several former US officials, Republican senators and others were criticizing the Biden administration for not responding to the attacks, and for permitting Iran’s foreign minister to come to New York, while his government’s role in the October 7 attack by Hamas was clear.
The US air strikes took place at roughly 4:30 a.m. on Friday (0130 GMT) near Abu Kamal, a Syrian town on the border with Iraq, and were carried out by two F-16 fighter jets using precision munitions, a US defense official said.
"These precision self-defense strikes are a response to a series of ongoing and mostly unsuccessful attacks against U.S. personnel in Iraq and Syria by Iranian-backed militia groups that began on October 17," US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement.
"These Iranian-backed attacks against US forces are unacceptable and must stop," Austin said, directly pointing fingers at the Iranian regime. However, the US response came after days of Iranian-backed attacks that injured scores of US troops. The delay, some argued, was emboldening Tehran.
Biden has sent a rare message to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warning Tehran against targeting U.S. personnel in the Middle East, the White House said earlier on Thursday.
"What we want is for Iran to take very specific actions, to direct its militias and proxies to stand down," a senior US defense official said. The United States did not coordinate the air strikes with Israel, the official added.
The United States has sent warships and fighter aircraft to the region over the last three weeks. On Thursday the Pentagon said about 900 more US troops have arrived in the Middle East or are heading there to bolster air defenses for U.S. personnel.
While the situation in the Middle East remains fluid, the U.S. has taken steps to deter further escalations, deploying two aircraft carriers, additional fighter squadrons, and air defense systems in the region.
In his statement Secretary Austin warned: “if attacks by Iran’s proxies against U.S. forces continue, we will not hesitate to take further necessary measures to protect our people.”
It’s not clear if any Iranians were present at the sites.
Austin has emphasized that the strikes in eastern Syria are "separate and distinct from the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas” and do not constitute a shift in the Biden administration’s approach. It is hard, however, if not impossible, to not see the bombing of facilities in Syria against that backdrop.
Israel said on Friday military raids into Gaza were preparing "the next stage of the operation", amid fears that a ground invasion of the Palestinian enclave could spark a wider Middle East conflict.
According to Gaza health authorities, at least 7,000 have been killed in Israeli airstrikes in the 20 days Since the Hamas attack on Israel (which killed 1400), while this figure cannot be independently verified. The regime in Iran has boasted many times about that operation and its support for Hamas.
The Islamic Republic supports several militant groups in the region, most notably Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Biden administration is weary of an all-out war involving these groups, which could be costly, economically and politically. But the continued attack on American forces seems to have taken the President over the decision edge.
Some observers have pointed out on social media that the Biden administration has had far fewer attacks on Iran-affiliated targets than the other way round.
With reporting by Reuters