The US has launched an air offensive in eastern Syria on facilities used by Iranian-backed Shia militias at around 2pm local time. The strike was authorised by President Joe Biden in response to "recent attacks against US and coalition personnel in Iraq and ongoing threats", according to Pentagon press secretary John Kirby.
At least two US aircraft reportedly took part in the dropping of seven 500-pound bombs that destroyed multiple infrastructure along the border between the Syrian town of Bukamal and its Iraqi counterpart Al-Qaim in Deir Ezzor province. In the same area, the pro-Iranian militias of Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada had a border checkpoint.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) has confirmed the deaths of 22 militiamen from the Popular Mobilisation Forces, a Tehran regime-backed organisation that includes members of several militias. Iranian state news broadcaster IRIB News said that 17 "resistance fighters" were killed in the attacks. However, the US authorities have so far confirmed no fatalities.
A convoy of trucks carrying weapons and ammunition to warehouses in Abu Kamal, a Syrian area bordering Iraq, was the target of the bombing. "The strikes destroyed three trucks carrying ammunition," SOHR director Rami Abdul Rahman told AFP. Pro-government militias have reportedly begun procedures to evacuate the weapons to other buildings in the area.
The operation comes in response to the 15 February rocket attack on the US base in Erbil, capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq. The attack left one dead and six wounded, but it was the Shiite militia Saraya Awliya al-Dam - little known in the region - that claimed responsibility for the attack.
Only a week after the attack, a new rocket offensive hit Baghdad's Green Zone, which houses the US Embassy and other diplomatic missions. No one was injured.
The Iraqi authorities were investigating responsibility for the attacks, although the Kataib Hezbollah organisation has been named as one of the culprits. However, Kataib is separate from the Lebanese Hezbollah organisation and, according to a senior commander of the group, it is "strange" that the US has targeted them for a series of offensives that had even been condemned by the militia itself.
The Iranian-backed groups have split significantly since the US-led attack that killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in Baghdad more than a year ago. Both figures were key to leading and controlling a wide range of Iranian-backed groups operating in Iraq. Since their assassination, militias have struck more frequently, although this decreased late last year before Biden's inauguration.
In response, several Western and Iraqi officials claim that the attacks, often claimed by little-known groups such as Saraya Awliya al-Dam, are carried out by militiamen linked to pro-Iranian militias such as Kataib Hezbollah as a means of harassing US forces without accountability. In other words, they have fragmented as a tactic to claim attacks under different names and thus mask their involvement.
US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin said that "there's not much more I can add at this point, other than the fact that we are confident of the objective we are pursuing, we know what we are achieving". He added: "We are certain that the target was being used by the same Shia militia that carried out the attacks".
This is the first military action under Joe Biden's tenure, just 35 days into his presidency. The defence secretary himself acknowledged that he had recommended the decision to the president and, according to Pentagon sources, the military response was carried out in consultation with coalition partners. The attack is therefore not a unilateral decision by the United States.
"President Biden will act to protect US and coalition personnel. At the same time, we have acted in a deliberate way that aims to de-escalate the overall situation in both eastern Syria and Iraq," said Pentagon press secretary John Kirby. This action was also aimed at "de-escalating the overall situation in both eastern Syria and Iraq", the spokesman added.
Representative Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, praised Biden's action: "Responses such as 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".
Notre Dame Law School professor Mary Ellen O'Connell pointed to the US attack as a violation of international law: "The United Nations Charter makes absolutely clear that the use of military force on the territory of a foreign sovereign state is lawful only in response to an armed attack against the defending state for which the target state is responsible," adding that "none of those elements are found in the Syrian attack".
Some experts said the strike establishes a strategic middle ground that avoids new diplomatic tensions with the Iraqi government, which is assisting the US in the fight against Daesh and could see an attack in Iraq as a violation of its sovereignty. On Tuesday, Biden discussed the recent attacks with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi and agreed that those responsible "must be held accountable".
Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova stressed that Moscow "strongly" condemned the bombings and called for absolute respect for Syria's sovereignty and territorial integrity. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that the Russian authorities were "closely monitoring the situation on the ground" and confirmed that Moscow was maintaining contact with the Syrian authorities.
The attack comes at a sensitive time as the US and Iran seek a way forward to revive the 2015 nuclear deal. The Biden administration has reached out to the Tehran regime, but the Persian authorities are demanding the removal of sanctions before sitting down to negotiate. Meanwhile, the Pentagon is seeking to shift its focus in Syria and Iraq, where 2,500 US troops are still being maintained to support counterinsurgency operations, and less than 1,000 respectively.