Reuters reports that the United States carried out air strikes authorised by President Joe Biden against facilities belonging to “Iranian-backed militia” in eastern Syria on Thursday, 25 February 2021 (early on Friday Middle Eastern time).
“At President (Joe) Biden’s direction, U.S. military forces earlier this evening conducted air strikes against infrastructure utilized by Iranian-backed militant groups in eastern Syria,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a statement. He said the strikes destroyed multiple facilities at a border control point used by Iranian-backed militant groups, including Kata’ib Hezbollah and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada.
Another Reuters’ report said that at least one militia fighter was killed, and possibly more than 17 people, according to unconfirmed local reports.
Why were the strikes carried out?
The Pentagon’s spokesman, John Kirby, said that the airstrikes were carried out in response to recent rocket attacks on US military and diplomatic sites in Iraq. Although the Kait’ib Hezbollah did not claim responsibility for the rocket attacks, US Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, said Washington was “confident” the pro-Iranian organization was behind the rocket attacks.
The president chose the “middle” option from a broad range of military options, according to a senior defense official. During the operation, U.S. fighter jets dropped seven 500lb precision bombs on seven targets.
The Pentagon spokesman said the U.S. conducted the strike “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,” Kirby said. “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 wider context
The strikes need to be seen in the wider context of the Biden administration’s repositioning of the US on issues in the middle east.
This has included: taking a strong position on ending the war in Yemen; revoking the designation of the Houthis as terrorists; reviewing arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates; taking a firm position on the killing of Jamal Khashoggi and re-setting the relationship with Saudi Arabia; taking an arms-length approach to Israel during its elections; and re-emphasising support for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine impasse.
The action comes also as the US and Iran position themselves in relation to the US’s possible re-entry to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the JCPOA), where the sides presently look to be locked in a stalemate where one side must yield to the other first in order even to reach the point of negotiations.
Against this backdrop, the strikes will be intended to set some boundaries and demonstrate US resolve. While some of the US’s recent policy shifts may be seen by the Iranians to be to their advantage in the region, the strikes should send a clear message about how and where the US will draw lines.
Al Jazeera reports that the action has drawn some criticism in the middle east as well as at home in the United States.
U.S. air strikes in Syria target Iranian-backed militia – Pentagon (Reuters, 26 February 2021)
U.S. air strikes on Iran-backed militias in Syria kill at least one fighter (Reuters, 26 February 2021)
First US military action under Biden draws criticism (Al Jazeera, 26 February 2021)
US carries out airstrikes on Iran-backed militia in Syria (DW, 26 February 2021)
U.S. carries out airstrike in Syria after rocket attacks (Politico, 25 February 2021)
Biden orders US strikes on Iranian-backed militia facilities in Syria (The Hill, 25 February 2021)