“Up to a handful” of militants were killed in the strikes, a US official told CNN.
The strikes, which mark the US military’s first known action under President Joe Biden, swiftly drew criticism from a Democratic lawmaker. The site was not specifically tied to the rocket attacks but Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said he was “confident” it was used by the same Iranian-backed Shia militias that had fired rockets at US and coalition forces.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the strikes took place “at President Biden’s direction” and were authorized not just to respond to the recent attacks against American and coalition forces but also to deal with “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 Kata’ib Hezbollah and Kata’ib Sayyid al Shuhada,” Kirby said. “The operation sends an unambiguous message; President Biden will act to protect American 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 site the US struck on Thursday is believed to be used as part of a weapons smuggling operation by the militias, according to a US official. The strikes were conducted to degrade the groups’ ability to carry out attacks and to send a message about the recent attacks, the official said.
Decision made from the ‘top down’
The decision to target the site in Syria was made from the “top down,” a defense official said. Austin told reporters that Biden had authorized the strike on Thursday morning, after he had recommended the President take action.
“We’re confident in the target we went after,” Austin said on a flight back to Washington from San Diego on Thursday. “We know what we hit. We allowed and encouraged the Iraqis to investigate and develop intelligence, and that was very helpful to us in refining the target.”
Kirby said Biden authorized the strikes after consulting with US allies, including coalition partners, and that they had taken place at about 6 p.m. ET.
While the US had not before Thursday blamed any specific group for the rocket attacks or attributed them to any Iranian proxies in the region, the administration has made clear where it places the ultimate blame.
“We have stated before that we will hold Iran responsible for the actions of its proxies that attack Americans,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Monday, noting that “many of these attacks have used Iranian-made, Iranian-supplied weapons.”
Earlier this week, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki had said the US holds Iran accountable for the actions of its proxies.
A February 15 rocket attack on coalition forces near the Erbil International Airport in Iraqi Kurdistan killed a civilian contractor and injured nine others, including four American…