BEIRUT (AP) — The U.S. military said early Wednesday it carried out airstrikes in eastern Syria that targeted areas used by militias backed by Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard.
Opposition war monitor the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and activist collective Deir Ezzor 24 said the airstrikes targeted the Ayash Camp run by the Fatimiyoun group made up of Shiite fighters from Afghanistan. The war monitor reported that at least six Syrian and foreign militants were killed in the airstrikes, while Deir Ezzor 24 reported 10 deaths.
A few hours later, Syrian state media reported that two U.S. bases in that part of Syria had been shelled by artillery. Deir Ezzor 24 said unnamed Iran-backed militias were behind the attack. No casualties were immediately reported. Neither the U.S. nor Iran immediately confirmed the attack.
Colin Kahl, the U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy, told reporters the U.S. airstrikes demonstrated that “the United States will not hesitate to defend itself against Iranian and Iran-backed aggression when it occurs.”
He said the U.S. decision to launch the strikes was based on both the nature of the militia attacks and the fact that, based on recovered drone parts, “we believe we have Iran dead to rights on attribution” for an Aug. 15 attack at the al-Tanf Garrison, where U.S. troops are based in the south.
He said the coordinated attack on two U.S. facilities at al-Tanf at the same time fueled concerns that “Iran intends to do more of this and we wanted to disabuse them of any sense that that was a good idea.”
Syrian state media said later that artillery had targeted two U.S. bases near the Al-Omari oil field and Koniko gas field in Deir Ez-Zor. The reports said U.S. forces had cordoned off the area.
Deir Ez-Zor is a strategic province that borders Iraq and contains oil fields. Iran-backed militia groups and Syrian forces control the area and have often been the target of Israeli war planes in previous strikes.
The Al-Omari oil field is the largest in Syria, which the U.S.-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces captured from the Islamic State group in 2017.
In Iran, Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani issued a statement condemning the American strike “against the people and infrastructure of Syria.” He also denied that Iran had any link to those targeted. Iran routinely denies arming militia groups targeting U.S. forces in the region, despite weaponry linking back to them.
The U.S. military’s Central Command said the strikes “took proportionate, deliberate action intended to limit the risk of escalation and minimize the risk of casualties.” It did not identify the targets, nor offer any casualty figures from the strikes, which the military said came at the orders of President Joe Biden.
Kahl said the U.S. initially identified 11 bunker targets at the site, and ended up striking nine becuase there was evidence there may be people near two of the locations and the goal was not to cause casualties.
“Today’s strikes were necessary to protect and defend U.S. personnel,” Central Command spokesman Col. Joe Buccino said in a statement.
The U.S. Treasury said the the Fatimiyoun has fought numerous battles in Syria, and is led by Iran’s elite Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard.
“The Ayash warehouse is a very important one for Iran’s militias,” Deir Ezzor 24 CEO Omar Abu Layla told The Associated Press. “We expect that Iran will respond, either in al-Tanf or possibly in Iraq.”
Buccino also noted that the attack was in response to an Aug. 15 attack targeting U.S. forces. That attack saw drones allegedly launched by Iranian-backed militias target the al-Tanf Garrison used by American forces. U.S. Central Command described the assault as causing “zero casualties and no damage” at the time.
There was no immediate acknowledgment by Syria’s state-run media of the strikes hitting Deir Ez-Zor.
U.S. forces entered Syria in 2015, backing allied forces in their fight against the Islamic State group.
Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.
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