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Biden warns Iran after clash between US forces and proxy groups in Syria


A deadly outburst of violence between US forces and suspected Iranian proxies in Syria has rekindled long-running tensions between Washington and Tehran, as President Biden warned Iran on Friday that violent attacks on US troops would be punished.

“The United States does not seek – emphasize not – seek conflict with Iran,” Biden said, speaking in Ottawa alongside Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, after US fighter jets carried out retaliatory airstrikes for the death of an American contractor. “But be prepared for us to act forcefully to protect our people. That’s exactly what happened last night.

Department of Defense spokesman Brig. General Patrick Ryder told reporters at the Pentagon that the operation, conducted overnight under Biden’s leadership, was intended “to send a very clear message that we will take the protection of our personnel seriously and that we will respond quickly and decisively if threatened.”

The violence that has erupted in Syria in recent days highlights the risk of escalation at a time when Washington and Tehran remain at odds over issues such as Iran’s nuclear program, the country’s support for militants across the Middle East and, since last year, its supply of military technology to Russia for its war in Ukraine.

The president’s remarks underscored his attempt to head off further violence while containing attacks by proxy forces that have long posed a threat to Americans in Iraq, Lebanon and beyond.

Drone attack kills US contractor in Syria, prompting retaliatory airstrikes

The bloodshed began on Thursday when a self-detonating drone hit a US facility in northeastern Syria, where hundreds of US troops remain stationed in a counterterrorism mission begun years ago to dismantle The Islamic State. Beyond the contractor’s death, five US soldiers and a second contractor were injured in the attack, which Biden administration officials quickly linked to militias trained and armed by Tehran.

US F-15 fighter jets carried out two airstrikes in response, Ryder said. The jets targeted facilities associated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, an elite Iranian force which, through his network of proxies, has from time to time targeted US troops in Syria.

Hours later, Ryder said, 10 rockets were launched at Green Village, a US military position about 100 miles south of Thursday’s assault. The Pentagon also linked the attacks to Iranian-backed militias, but said there were no injuries to US or coalition personnel, or damage to US equipment.

The incidents come as Saudi Arabia, a Central American partner in the Middle East, begins what could mark a dramatic rapprochement with Iran. The tentative agreement to resume diplomatic ties after years of antagonism, in a deal brokered this month by China, underscores Beijing’s growing influence in the Middle East as America focuses on what officials consider to be more significant threats from Russia and China.

China negotiates detente between Iran and Saudi Arabia, raising eyebrows in Washington

While the United States retains a large military footprint in the region, American leaders hope to avoid the long and costly combat missions that have dominated American foreign policy in the decades since 9/11.

Speaking to lawmakers this week, Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla, the top US military officer overseeing operations in the Middle East, said that since January 2021, groups linked to Iran have launched 78 attacks targeting U.S. personnel in the region, a higher number than previously disclosed.

Thursday’s drone attack occurred outside the northeastern town of Hasakah, where thousands of Islamic State fighters were arrested following the collapse of their self-proclaimed caliphate over the past decade. Some of those injured were rushed to a medical facility in Iraq, officials said. All were in stable condition on Friday.

None of the victims have been identified. The New York Times reported on Friday that the facility’s air defenses were not fully operational when the attack occurred. The incident would be reviewed internally, Ryder said, and officials planned to review what additional “mitigating measures” might be needed to ensure US personnel are protected from possible future attacks. He declined to elaborate.

The Deir Ezzor 24 activist group, which has sources in the area where the airstrikes took place, said four members of what it described as Iran-linked militias were killed near the town of Deir al-Zour, and that others, including Iraqi citizens, were injured. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British group that documents violence in the region, said 11 people died in the airstrikes. Ryder said Friday that the Pentagon continues to assess losses resulting from the operation.

Biden consulted with his national security team before authorizing the airstrikes, White House spokesman John Kirby told CNN on Friday. The president decided to act “very, very soon” after receiving recommendations from senior defense and intelligence community officials, Kirby said.

The violence underscores continuing instability in Syria, where, 12 years after its civil war began, the country is a patchwork of areas controlled by President Bashar al-Assad’s government, Kurdish forces and others. Assad’s government is backed by Russia and Iran.

About 900 American personnel, reinforced by hundreds of contractors, are based in eastern Syria, where they are associated with the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led group. Another 2,500 American soldiers are stationed in Iraq.

Kirby called the area where Thursday’s attack occurred “dangerous” and said US personnel assigned there were primarily focused on ensuring the “sustainable defeat” of Islamic State. “We have been very clear with the Iranians and with our partners about the seriousness of the mission we are carrying out in Syria and how much we are going to protect this mission,” Kirby said. “Iran should not be involved in supporting these attacks against our facilities and against our people.”

Kurilla told lawmakers that Tehran has the largest and most diverse missile arsenal in the Middle East, as well as the largest and most capable unmanned aerial vehicle force in the region.

“The advancement of Iranian military capabilities over the past 40 years is unprecedented in the region; in fact, today’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is unrecognizable from just five years ago,” he told the House of Representatives on Thursday.

In a statement released after the airstrikes, the general said the United States had “evolving options” if tensions with Iran or its proxy forces escalate further.

Thursday’s violence marks the latest flashpoint as Iran and its supporters seek to force the United States out of the region.

US-Iranian tensions escalated after President Donald Trump’s decision to pull the US out of a landmark nuclear deal with Tehran in 2018.

When Iran-linked militias fired volleys of rockets at the US Embassy in Baghdad and targeted coalition bases across the country, killing and wounding Iraqi and foreign troops, Trump responded by ordering killing a top Iranian general, Qasem Soleimani, and authorizing airstrikes on militias in Iraq and Syria.

Iran retaliated by firing ballistic missiles at US military positions, 11 of which exploded at Ain al-Asad air base in western Iraq. The explosions destroyed planes and buildings and left craters on the base, with more than 100 American soldiers suffering from traumatic brain injuries.

Louisa Loveluck in London contributed to this report.


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