US President Joe Biden on Friday said that the US airstrikes targetting facilities belonging to Iranian-backed Iraqi armed in Syria, must be seen as a warning for consequences they may face for extending support to militia groups that threaten US interests or personnel.
The airstrike, which killed a fighter and wounded several others according to an Iraqi militia official, signalled the first military action undertaken by President Biden.
Pentagon officials said the strikes were retaliation for recent attacks on US interests in Iraq, including a rocket attack in northern Iraq on February 15 that killed one civilian contractor and wounded a US service member and other coalition troops.
“You can’t act with impunity. Be careful,” Biden said when a reporter asked what message he had intended to send with the airstrikes, which the Pentagon said destroyed several buildings in eastern Syria but were not intended to eradicate the militia groups that used them to facilitate attacks inside Iraq.
But in a political twist for the new Democratic administration, several leading Congress members in Biden’s own party denounced the strikes. Democrats said the airstrikes were done without authorization from lawmakers, while Republicans were more supportive.
Administration officials defended the Thursday night airstrikes as legal and appropriate, saying they took out facilities that housed valuable capabilities used by Iranian-backed militia groups to attack American and allied forces in Iraq.
John Kirby, the Pentagons chief spokesman, said Friday that two Air Force F-15E aircraft launched seven missiles, fully destroying nine facilities and heavily damaging two other facilities, rendering the two functionally destroyed. Kirby said the facilities hit in the attack were near Boukamal, on the Syrian side of the Iraq border, along the Euphrates River.
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This location is known to facilitate Iranian-aligned militia group activity, he said. He added that the US has preliminary information about casualties at the attack site, but he declined to release any details pending the completion of a broader assessment of damage inflicted. He described the site as a compound that previously had been used by the Islamic State group when it held sway in the area.
The Iraqi militia official told The Associated Press the strikes against the Kataeb Hezbollah, or Hezbollah Brigades, hit an area along the border between the Syrian site of Boukamal facing Qaim on the Iraqi side. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak of the attack. Syria war monitoring groups said the strikes hit trucks moving weapons to a base for Iranian-backed militias in Boukamal.
“I’m confident in the target that we went after, we know what we hit,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters flying with him from California to Washington, shortly after the airstrikes which were carried out Thursday evening Eastern Standard Time.
The Biden administration in its first weeks has emphasized its intent to put more focus on the challenges posed by China, even as Mideast threats persist. Biden’s decision to attack in Syria did not appear to signal an intention to widen US military involvement in the region but rather to demonstrate a will to defend US troops in Iraq and send a message to Iran.
The US has in the past targeted facilities in Syria belonging to Kataeb Hezbollah, which it has blamed for numerous attacks targeting US personnel and interests in Iraq. The Iraqi Kataeb is separate from the Lebanese Hezbollah movement.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based group that monitors the war in Syria, said the strikes targeted a shipment of weapons that were being taken by trucks entering Syrian territories from Iraq. The group said 22 fighters from the Popular Mobilization Forces, an Iraqi umbrella group of mostly Shiite paramilitaries that includes Kataeb Hezbollah, were killed. The report could not be independently verified.
In a statement, the group confirmed one of its fighters was killed and said it reserved the right to retaliate, without elaborating. Kataeb Hezbollah, like other Iranian-backed factions, maintains fighters in Syria to both fight against the Islamic State group and assist Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces in that country’s civil war.
Defense Secretary Austin said he was “confident” the US had hit back at the “the same Shia militants that conducted the strikes”, referring to a February 15 rocket attack in northern Iraq that killed one civilian contractor and wounded a US service member and other coalition personnel. He said he had recommended the action to President Biden.
“We said a number of times that we will respond on our timeline,” Austin said. “We wanted to be sure of the connectivity and we wanted to be sure that we had the right targets.”
Earlier, Kirby said the US action was a proportionate military response taken together with diplomatic measures, including consultation with coalition partners. The operation sends an unambiguous message: President Biden will act to protect US and coalition personnel, Kirby said.
Kirby said the US airstrikes destroyed multiple facilities at a border control point used by a number of Iranian-backed militant groups, including Kataeb Hezbollah and Kataeb Sayyid al-Shuhada. Further details were not immediately available.
Mary Ellen OConnell, a professor at Notre Dame Law School, criticized the US attack as a violation of international law. She said the UN 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.
(With inputs from agencies)