By LOU KESTEN, BASSEM MROUE and JON GAMBRELL (Associated Press)
BEIRUT (AP) — President Joe Biden said Friday that the United States was not seeking conflict with Iran, but would respond “forcefully” to protect its personnel in Syria and elsewhere, a day after an American contractor was killed and six other Americans were injured in an attack blamed on Iran-affiliated groups in northeast Syria.
Biden said he ordered a retaliatory airstrike on sites in Syria used by groups affiliated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Speaking in Ottawa, Canada, where he is on a state visit, Biden expressed his “sincere condolences” to the family of the slain American and issued a warning to Iran.
“The United States is not looking, not looking for conflict with Iran,” Biden said. But he said the United States stood “ready to act forcefully to protect our people.” That’s exactly what happened last night.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s previous story follows below.
BEIRUT (AP) — A strike Thursday by an alleged Iranian-made drone killed an American contractor and injured six other Americans in northeast Syria, and U.S. forces responded with airstrikes on sites in Syria used by groups affiliated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, the Pentagon said. . Activists said the US bombing killed at least four people.
On Friday evening, two groups of Syrian opposition activists reported a new wave of airstrikes in eastern Syria that hit Iran-backed militia positions after rockets were fired at a factory Conoco gas station which has a base housing US troops. It was not immediately clear if American warplanes had carried out the attack.
Although it is not the first time that the United States and Iran have exchanged strikes in Syria, the attack and the American response threaten to upset recent efforts to defuse tensions throughout the Middle East, including the rival powers have taken steps towards detente in recent days after years of turmoil.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said in a statement that the US intelligence community determined the drone was of Iranian origin, but provided no other immediate evidence to support the claim. The drone hit a coalition base in the town of Hasaka in northeast Syria. The injured included five US military personnel and an American contractor.
Austin said the strikes were a response to the drone attack “as well as a series of recent attacks on coalition forces in Syria” by groups affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards.
Iran relies on a network of proxy forces across the Middle East to counter the United States and Israel, its regional arch-enemy. The United States has had forces in northeastern Syria since 2015, when it deployed as part of the fight against the Islamic State group, and maintains some 900 troops there, working with forces led by the Kurds who control about a third of Syria.
US airstrikes hit targets in three towns in eastern Syria, activists said. Overnight, videos posted on social media claimed to show explosions in Deir el-Zour, a strategic province bordering Iraq and containing oil deposits. Iran-backed militias and Syrian forces control the area, which has also seen suspected Israeli airstrikes in recent months that have allegedly targeted Iranian supply routes.
According to a defense official, the US counterattacks were carried out by F-15 fighter jets flying from al-Udeid airbase in Qatar. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the military operations.
According to a US official, US F-15s hit three locations, all near Deir el-Zour.
Militant group Deir Ezzor 24, which covers news from the province, said the US strikes killed four people and injured several others, including Iraqis.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, took stock of US strikes on 11 Iran-backed fighters, including six at an arms depot in the Harabesh neighborhood in the city of Deir el-Zour and five others in military posts. near the towns of Mayadeen and Boukamal.
Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Observatory, said three rockets were fired earlier on Friday at the al-Omar oilfield in Deir el-Zour which is home to US troops, in apparent retaliation for US strikes.
An official with an Iran-backed group in Iraq said strikes in eastern Syria on Friday morning killed seven Iranians. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in accordance with regulations.
Deir Ezzor 24 and the Observatory had no details on whether the new wave of airstrikes on Friday evening on the town of Deir el-Zour had caused casualties.
The Associated Press could not immediately independently confirm the activists’ reports. Iran and Syria did not immediately acknowledge the strikes, nor did their officials at the United Nations in New York respond to requests for comment from the AP.
Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guards, answerable only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have been suspected of carrying out attacks with bomb-carrying drones across the Middle East.
The exchange of strikes came as Saudi Arabia and Iran struggled to reopen their embassies in each other’s countries. The kingdom also acknowledged efforts to reopen a Saudi embassy in Syria, whose embattled President Bashar Assad has been backed by Iran in his country’s long war.
US Army General Michael “Erik” Kurilla, chief of US Army Central Command, warned that his forces could carry out additional strikes if necessary. “We are positioned for scalable options in the face of any additional Iranian attacks,” Kurilla said in a statement.
Speaking to the US House Armed Services Committee on Thursday, Kurilla warned lawmakers that “Iran today is exponentially more capable militarily than it was even five years ago. “. He pointed to Iran’s arsenal of ballistic missiles and bomb-carrying drones.
“What Iran is doing to hide its hand is using Iranian proxies,” Kurilla said.
Officials say Iran has launched 80 attacks against US forces and sites in Iraq and Syria since January 2021. The vast majority of them have taken place in Syria.
Diplomacy to defuse the exchange seemed to begin immediately. Qatar’s foreign minister spoke by phone with US national security adviser Jake Sullivan as well as Iranian foreign minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, the Qatari state news agency reports. Doha has recently been an interlocutor between Iran and the United States amid tensions over Tehran’s nuclear program.
Austin said he authorized the retaliatory strikes at the direction of President Joe Biden.
“As President Biden has made clear, we will take whatever action is necessary to defend our people and always respond when and where we choose,” Austin said. “No group will strike our troops with impunity.”
The US under Biden has hit Syria before over tensions with Iran – in February and June 2021, as well as August 2022.
Dareen Khalifa, senior Syria analyst with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, said while Thursday’s exchange of strikes comes at a sensitive political time due to the “general deterioration in US-Iranian relations and the stalling of nuclear talks,” she does not expect a significant escalation.
“These tit-for-tat strikes have been going on for a long time,” Khalifa said, although she noted that they generally did not result in casualties.
While “the risk of an escalation cycle is there,” she said, “I think the Biden administration won’t be eager to escalate in Syria now and instead have a relatively measured response.”
Since the US drone strike that killed Revolutionary Guard General Qassem Soleimani in 2020, Iran has sought to “make life difficult for US forces stationed east of the Euphrates”, said Hamidreza Azizi , expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
“Iran has increased its support for local proxies in Deir el-Zour while trying to ally itself with tribal forces in the region,” Azizi wrote in a recent analysis. “Due to the geographical proximity, Iraqi groups have also intensified their activities in the border strip with Syria and in the province of Deir el-Zour.”
The strikes come during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
The war in Syria began with the 2011 Arab Spring protests that rocked the entire Middle East and toppled governments in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen. It then escalated into a regional proxy conflict that saw Russia and Iran supporting Assad. The United Nations estimates that more than 300,000 civilians were killed during the war. These figures do not include soldiers and insurgents killed in the conflict; their number is believed to number in the tens of thousands.
Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Kesten reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Abby Sewell in Beirut, Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Irbil, Iraq and Lolita Bador in Washington, DC contributed to this report.