Airstrikes in Syria kill 22 in Joe Biden’s first military act as president
Strikes against Iran-backed fighters were retaliation for attack on US-led forces in Iraq, says Pentagon
Joe Biden has carried out his first military action as president, with airstrikes targeting Iranian-backed fighters in Syria, in what the Pentagon said was retaliation for a rocket attack in Iraq earlier this month that killed one civilian contractor and wounded a US service member and other coalition troops.
The overnight strikes killed 22 people after hitting three trucks loaded with munitions near the border town of Abu Kamal, a war monitor said on Friday. Border posts used by Iranian militia groups were also destroyed, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
It said all of the dead were from Iraq’s state-sponsored Hashd al-Shaabi, an umbrella force that includes many small militias with ties to Iran.
The Pentagon’s chief spokesperson, John Kirby, said the location of the strikes was used by Kataeb Hezbollah and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, two Iraqi pro-Iran groups operating under the Hashd umbrella. “This proportionate military response was conducted together with diplomatic measures, including consultation with coalition partners,” Kirby said. “The operation sends an unambiguous message: President Biden will act to protect American and coalition personnel. At the same time, we have acted in a deliberate manner that aims to de-escalate the overall situation in eastern Syria and Iraq.”
The Iranian and Syrian foreign ministers spoke in a telephone call on Friday after the strikes, and underlined “the need of the west to adhere to UN security council resolutions regarding Syria”, a statement on the Iranian government website Dolat.ir said.
A little-known Shia group, believed to be a front for more prominent Iran-backed factions hostile to the US, claimed responsibility for the 15 February attack on an airbase in Erbil, in Kurdish Iraq. It was the most deadly attack in almost a year on US-led coalition forces deployed to Iraq to fight Isis, killing a Filipino contractor and wounding nine US coalition and military staff and at least five Iraqi civilians.
Tensions between the US and its Iraqi and Kurdish allies on one side, and Iran-aligned militias on the other, soared during the Trump administration, with its stance of “maximum pressure” on the Islamic republic.
Tehran has made clear it intends further retribution for the 2020 drone strike that killed the Iranian general Qassem Suleimani and the powerful Iraqi Shia militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, almost causing a proxy war.
The Erbil attack was widely interpreted as the first serious test of Biden’s Iranian policy as the president seeks to revive the nuclear deal, scrapped by Donald Trump in 2018, between Tehran and world powers.
Another salvo struck a base hosting US forces north of Baghdad days later, injuring at least one contractor, and on Monday rockets hit Baghdad’s Green Zone, which houses the US embassy and other diplomatic missions.
Biden’s decision to strike only in Syria and not in Iraq, at least for now, gives Iraq’s government, stuck in the middle of tensions between its two biggest allies, breathing room as it carries out its own investigation into the Erbil attack.
Since Iraq declared victory against Isis in late 2017, the coalition has been reduced to fewer than 3,500 troops, 2,500 of them Americans, who no longer take part in combat operations. Most are concentrated at the military complex at Erbil airport.
The Biden administration has in its first weeks emphasised its foreign policy priority is the challenges posed by China, even as threats in the Middle East persist.
Mary Ellen O’Connell, a professor at Notre Dame Law School, criticised the US attack as a violation of international law. “The United Nations charter makes absolutely clear that the use of military force on the territory of a foreign sovereign state is lawful only in response to an armed attack on the defending state for which the target state is responsible,” she said. “None of those elements is met in the Syria strike.”