The United States carried out airstrikes in eastern Syria overnight on sites connected to Iranian-backed groups believed to be involved in recent attacks in Iraq, the first overt use of military force under President Joe Biden.
The assault came after a series of rocket attacks in recent days on facilities in Iraq used by the United States, including one that killed a contractor working with the US-led coalition in the country.
At least 22 Iraqi militants allied with Iran were killed and three ammunition trucks were destroyed in the attack, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which gathers information from a network of activists on the ground in Syria.
Syria condemned the strike as "cowardly American aggression."
"It is a bad sign regarding the policies of the new US administration which should adhere to international" norms, its Foreign Ministry said.
Iraq's Defence Ministry denied the US had coordinated with it to conduct the strike.
Syria's ally Russia also condemned the attack, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov questioning the Biden administration's plans in Syria.
"It is very important for us to understand the United States' strategic line on the ground," he said.
“These strikes were authorised in response to recent attacks against American and coalition personnel in Iraq, and to ongoing threats to those personnel,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a statement Thursday night. “The strikes destroyed multiple facilities located at a border control point used by a number of Iranian-backed militant groups, including Kait’ib Hezbollah and Kait’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada.”
At about 2am local time on Friday, a single F-15 jet fired on a cluster of buildings at a location believed to be a transit point for smuggling militia members into Iraq, according to a US official. A handful of people were expected to be at the location, the official said.
After a decade of civil war, Syria’s military is in little position to respond directly to a US attack. The country faced two attacks by the US military during former president Donald Trump’s tenure, both over President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons in the conflict.
By hitting a facility in Syria, Washington avoids raising tensions that would come with a direct strike on Iran, which the Biden administration is seeking to persuade to return to the 2015 nuclear deal Trump abandoned three years ago. It also avoids a US strike inside Iraq, which would have caused embarrassment for the fragile US-allied government in Baghdad.
“The operation sends an unambiguous message,” Kirby said Thursday night. “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.”
The US launched the strike one day after Biden spoke with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi. The two leaders “discussed the recent rocket attacks against Iraqi and coalition personnel and agreed that those responsible for such attacks must be held fully to account,” the White House said Wednesday in a statement.
US Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, commended the Biden administration on Thursday night, saying in a statement that “responses like this are a necessary deterrent and remind Iran, its proxies, and our adversaries around the world that attacks on US interests will not be tolerated.”
But Democratic Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, who has long argued that presidents need to seek approval from lawmakers for most military operations, called for a congressional briefing. “The American people deserve to hear the administration’s rationale for these strikes and its legal justification for acting without coming to Congress,” he said in a statement on Friday.
Nicholas Heras, of the Institute of the Study of War, said other diplomatic interests were also at play.
"The Biden administration is in the process of seeking out a way to show the Israelis that it is willing to do more against Iran and its proxy groups in the region, especially in Syria," he said.