The U.S. military says that it has carried out strikes against Iranian-backed militias in Syria in retaliation for a rocket attack on Erbil Airport in northern Iraq last week. That attack, which the War Zone
reported on at the time, killed a contractor working for the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria and injured a U.S. military serviceperson, among other casualties. This would appear to be the first American strike on Iranian-supported groups in the region under President Joe Biden.
A statement from Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby on Feb. 25, 2021, says that President Biden directly ordered the strikes on multiple facilities at an unspecified border crossing point. Other reports have said that the targets belonged to Iranian-backed groups operating in the strategic Syrian border town of Al Bukamal. The press release also specifically named two Iranian-supported groups, Kait’ib Hezbollah and Kait’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, as among those that the strikes were aimed at. Kait’ib Hezbollah is one of the most powerful pro-Iran militias based in Iraq and has been the target of American retaliatory strikes following deadly rocket attacks in the past.
The full statement is as follows:
At President Biden’s direction, U.S. military forces earlier this evening conducted airstrikes against infrastructure utilized by Iranian-backed militant groups in eastern Syria. These strikes were authorized in response to recent attacks against American and Coalition personnel in Iraq, and to ongoing threats to those personnel. Specifically, the strikes destroyed multiple facilities located at a border control point used by a number of Iranian-backed militant groups, including Kait’ib Hezbollah (KH) and Kait’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada (KSS).
This proportionate military response was conducted together with diplomatic measures, including consultation with Coalition partners. 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 both eastern Syria and Iraq.
“I’m confident in the target that we went after, we know what we hit,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who was flying from California to Washington when news of the strikes broke, told reporters traveling with him. “We’re confident that that target was being used by the same Shia militants that conducted the strikes.”
“We said a number of times that we will respond on our timeline,” Austin continued, adding that he had recommended the strikes to President Biden. “We wanted to be sure of the connectivity and we wanted to be sure that we had the right targets.”
Jennifer Griffin of Fox News reported that U.S. Air Force “F-15” combat jets had been used to carry out the strikes. These were almost certainly F-15E Strike Eagles based in neighboring Jordan, which have been go-to assets for these kinds of operations in recent years. It’s interesting to note that, per a long-standing deconfliction arrangement, the airspace above Al Bukamal is under the control of Russian forces in Syria supporting Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad. There is no indication, though, that these strikes were coordinated in any way with Russia.
Online flight tracking software also indicated that a specialized Air Force E-11A Battlefield Airborne Control Node (BACN) aircraft was in the area during the strikes. These aircraft, which you can read about more in detail in this past War Zone feature, have a highly-specialized communications suite that provides a valuable gateway to share information between diverse platforms and personnel, in the air and down below, during operations. A KC-10A Extender aerial refueling tanker was also spotted in the area.
In the days leading up to the strike, U.S. special operations reconnaissance aircraft were also tracked prowling around the area.
Fox News‘ Griffin also said that the strikes had been timed deliberately to focus on destroying facilities, such as command and control centers and logistics warehouses, and their contents, rather than causing casualties. An official told her that it was a “shot across the bow” and a “warning” aimed at Iran and its regional proxies.
Last year, there were reports that Iranian-backed militias appeared to be expanding their main base of operations in Al Bukamal, a complex named after Imam Ali, a key figure in the foundation of Shia Islam, including with the addition of new underground facilities. This followed earlier U.S. strikes on that base in 2019, as well as others in 2020 that were reportedly carried out by Israel as part of its own campaign against Iranian proxies.
Though it’s not clear what the strikes targeted exactly, what we do know about their planning and execution is significant in its own right. By every indication, President Biden and his administration sought to retaliate against the perpetrators of the attacks on Erbil and send a message to Iran, but also do so in such a way as to try to reduce the risk of immediate escalation as much as possible.
This is in some contrast to how former President Donald Trump and his administration handled similar incidents in Iraq in the past few years. That the Pentagon has publicly stated that there was coordination with allies and partners regarding these strikes seems to be pointed messaging that is at least partially aimed at underlining differences with the prior administration’s policies and general diplomatic tone.
All of this comes as the Biden administration is working to return the U.S. government to full participation in the controversial multi-national deal over Iran’s nuclear program and convince authorities in Tehran to do the same. Biden has also said that Iran will get no sanctions relief until it returns to full compliance with this agreement, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). President Trump withdrew the United States from the Iran Deal in 2018.
How the intended messaging from these new strikes on Iranian-backed militias in Syria is received, both by those groups and in Tehran, remains to be seen. What is clear is that the Biden administration now appears willing to continue using military force against these groups when certain circumstances present themselves.
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