The US base at Tanf in eastern Syria on the Iraq border (File)
UPDATE, MARCH 4:
US officials have said that Wednesday’s rocket attack, on an Iraqi base with US personnel, fits the profile of assaults by Iran-backed Iraqi militia.
However, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said, “We cannot attribute responsibility at this time, and we do not have a complete picture of the extent of the damage.”
The Pentagon repeated that there are no reports of casualties, but an American civilian contractor died after suffering a “cardiac episode” while sheltering from rockets.
President Joe Biden said to reporters at the White House, “Thank God no one was killed by the rockets….We’re identifying whose responsible and we’ll make judgments at that point.”
Iran’s Foreign Ministry is trying to pin the blame on Israel for the “suspicious” attacks.
Speaking to Al Jazeera Arabic on Wednesday, Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh declared that the rocketing of the Ain al-Asad base was similar to firing upon the Green Zone in Baghdad, where the diplomatic missions of the US and other countries are located.
He said this was an indication of the involvement of “foreign hands, including those of the Zionist regime in Israel”.
UPDATE, MARCH 3:
Rockets have again been fired on an Iraqi base with US personnel.
An Iraqi security source said about 13 Katyusha rockets were fired on the Ain al-Asad air base in Anbar Province in western Iraq, about 160 km (100 miles) west of Baghdad. He said the attackers fired from about 8 km (5 miles).
Coalition spokesman Col. Wayne Marotto said the attack was at 7:20 a.m. (0420 GMT). He did not mention casualties.
However, an American contractor subsequently died of a heart attack.
UPDATE, MARCH 2:
The Pentagon has confirmed its assessment of casualties in last Thursday’s US airstrikes, with one Iranian-backed Iraqi fighter killed and two injured.
“What I can tell you is that we believe right now there was likely one militia member killed, and two militia members wounded,” Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby told reporters on Monday.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights had circulated rumors, as fact, that at least 22 militiamen were killed.
UPDATE, 0730 GMT:
The Secretary of Iran’s National Security Council Ali Shamkhani declared on Saturday that Friday’s US airstrikes on Iran-backed militia inside Syria are part of American attempts to revive “organized terrorism”.
Shamkhani used a meeting with Iraq’s Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein in Tehran to proclaim, “Iran and other countries fighting against terrorism will not allow affiliated Takfiri terrorism to revive once again in the region.”
He pressed Hussein to implement a bill passed by the Iraqi Parliament calling for the removal of foreign forces from the country.
In his meeting with Hussein, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif chided the “dangerous” decision by the Biden Administration to strike, avoiding any reference to Tehran’s support of the militias.
He also tried to distance Iran from attacks on US personnel on Iraqi bases, including the February 15 rocket assault that killed a Filipino contractor with the American military and wounded six other troops and contractors.
“We stress the need for the Iraqi government’s action to find the perpetrators,” Zarif said.
UPDATE, 0710 GMT:
Israel Defense Minister Benny Gantz has said there is “a likelihood” that Iran is behind Friday’s explosion that damaged an Israeli-owned cargo ship (see update below).
Kan News, which interviewed Gantz, said Israeli security officials view the attack in the Gulf of Oman as the crossing of a red line by Tehran.
Israeli officials are expected to hold high-level discussions on Sunday.
Senior officials told Ynet, “We are considering an appropriate response. This will not be accepted silently.”
In 2019, as tensions rose in the Persian Gulf, tankers were damaged by explosions. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards were blamed for placing mines on the outside of the vessels.
UPDATE, FEB 28:
The Kremlin continues to refrain from direct criticism of the US strikes on Iranian-backed militias at a border post inside Syria.
Instead, Russia State outlet TASS headlines the position of the Assad regime. It cites the statement of the Foreign Ministry in Damascus, “This act of aggression will have repercussions which could escalate the situation in the region.”
— Aurora Intel (@AuroraIntel) February 27, 2021
UPDATE, 0930 GMT:
An investigation is seeking to establish whether Iran is connected to a Friday explosion which damaged an Israeli-owned cargo ship in the Gulf of Oman at the entrance to the Persian Gulf.
The blast left two holes on both the port and starboard sides of the Bahaman-flagged MV Helios Ray, sending it to port.
Some Israeli media outlets said the Iranians would have known of the ship’s connection to Israel.
However, Tel Aviv-based owner Abraham Ungar said that, while the blast was likely connected to tension between Iran and the US, “I don’t think this deliberately targeted an Israeli-owned ship. That has not happened to me before.”
UPDATE, FEB 27:
Speaking to a reporter on Friday, President Joe Biden summarized the message to Iran with the airstrikes on a border position of Iranian-backed militias inside Syria: “You can’t act with impunity. Be careful.”
Tehran continues to avoid any mention of its connection with the militias. Instead, Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh proclaimed that the strikes were “a continuation of Israel’s unabated aggression” upon Syria.
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif signalled Iran’s ongoing support for the Assad regime with a call to Damascus counterpart Faisal al-Mekdad.
The Assad regime’s Foreign Ministry proclaimed that the strikes were “a flagrant violation of the rules of international law and Charter of the United Nations”. It declared that the operations were part of a plot including “repeated attacks by the Israeli occupation forces, the so-called ‘international coalition’, the Turkish occupation, and the crimes of armed terrorist organizations”.
The Ministry repeated the regime’s threat to reclaim the Kurdish-controlled territory in northeast Syria, with the US military supporting the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces: “[We will] restore every inch of the land and liberate it from the occupation and terrorism.”
The Kremlin has refrained from criticism of the strikes. Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia is closely monitoring the situation and is in constant contact with the Syrian authorities.
Peskov said he could not say whether the US had notified Russia in advance, under a “de-confliction” arrangement to prevent the American and Russia militaries from accidentally clashing in Syria.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov later said that the Russian military was given “about four to five minutes warning” of the operations.
“This has no value even from the angle of deconfliction, as they say in relations between Russian and US servicemen,” Lavrov told a Moscow news conference.
Meanwhile, Russia State attack outlet RT is posting polemics, by activists based in the US and Europe, to denounce the Ameerican operation.
And leading Russian MP Vladimir Dzhabarov said the US strikes are “illegal and an attack on a sovereign state territory”.
ORIGINAL ENTRY, FEB 26: The US has carried out airstrikes on positions of Iran-backed militias inside Syria.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said, in a statement on Thursday night, that the strikes were a response to the rocket attacks of Iranian-supported militia killing and wounding US and American-affiliated personnel on Iraqi bases.
In a rocket assault on February 15, a Filipino contractor was killed. Six US personnel were wounded, including a Louisiana National Guard soldier and four American contractors.
Days later at least one contractor was wounded in a barrage on a base north of Baghdad, and rockets were fired on Monday on the Iraqi capital’s Green Zone, where the US Embassy and other diplomatic missions are located.
At President Biden’s direction, US military forces earlier this evening conducted airstrikes against infrastructure utilized by Iranian-backed militant groups in eastern Syria.
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.
US officials said seven 500-pound bombs were dropped by US F-15£ jet fighters on a small cluster of buildings at an unofficial crossing on the Syria-Iraq border. Kirby said the destroyed facilities were used by Iran-backed militia such as Kata’ib Hezbollah, accused of responsibility for many of the rocket attacks on US personnel, and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada.
A US official said the strikes are a signal of punishment of the militias, rather than an escalation of the conflict in Syria and Iraq. He said Biden, who approved the operation on Thursday morning, had chosen the most limited response from a range of options.
The response came as the Biden Administration has accepted an invitation, from the European Union, for informal talks about the 2015 Iran nuclear talks. Tehran is still considering the invitation for the discussions with the US and the other 5+1 Powers (UK, Germany, France, China, and Russia).
The Trump Administration withdrew from the agreement in May 2018.
The Pentagon’s Kirby assured last night, “This proportionate military response was conducted together with diplomatic measures, including consultation with coalition partners.”
4th Major US Strikes on Pro-Assad Forces
Unconfirmed claims said 17 people were killed by the US strikes. American officials said the attack killed a “handful” of fighters.
The American attacks are the fourth significant set of deliberate strikes on forces supporting the Assad regime since March 2011, when the Syrian conflict began.
Two of the operations were on regime facilities connected with the regime’s sarin and chlorine attacks on civilians in opposition areas.
In April 2017, the US bombed the Shayrat airbase in northwest Syria. A week earlier, regime warplanes from the base dropped sarin on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib Province, killing at least 90 people and injuring hundreds.
A year later, the US, France, and Britain struck three key complexes in the regime’s chemical weapons program, a week after chlorine killed 43 people in Douma near Damascus.
In February 2018 US air and artillery strikes killed hundreds of pro-Assad forces advancing against an oil facility and a headquarters of Kurdish-led Syrian Defense Forces in northeast Syria. Russia mercenaries were also slain, although figures vary widely on the casualties.
The US military has also responded against pro-Assad forces moving inside a 55-km security zone around the American base at Tanf in eastern Syria on the Iraq border. In June 2017, a US jet fighter shot down a regime warplane attacking SDF personnel in the Kurdish-controlled northeast.
And in September, US warplanes mistakenly bombed pro-Assad forces in Deir ez-Zor Province in eastern Syria. The strikes, which were supposed to target Islamic State fighters, reportedly killed more than 80 regime troops.
Biden was Vice President in the Obama Administration in August 2013, when President Barack Obama overruled officials who wanted to respond to the regime’s sarin attacks near Damascus that killed at least 1,400 civilians.
Iran Yet to Respond
Earlier this week, the Kata’ib Hezbollah militia denied any role in the rocket attacks, which was claimed by a little-known group called Awliya al Dam (Guardian of the Blood). However, Western and Iraqi officials said the assaults are being carried out by fighters with links to Kata’ib Hezbollah, trying to avoid the force or Iran being held accountable.
Rocket attacks in December 2019, attributed to Kata’ib Hezbollah, killed a US contractor and wounded American troops. The Trump Administration responded on January 3, 2020 with the drone assassination of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the commmander of Iran’s Quds Force, and Kata’ib Hezbollah leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
Iran’s Rouhani Government has not issued a statement about Thursday’s developments, and State media is refusing to acknowledge any Tehran connection with the targets.
Press TV headlines that the US strikes were on “anti-terror resistance fighters“. The English-language site of Fars, connected with the Revolutionary Guards, ignores the attacks.
Russian State outlet TASS features the matter-of-fact headline, “Pentagon confirms air strikes in eastern Syria against targets of pro-Iranian forces”.
However, pro-Assad activists were quick to push deceptive propaganda about the attack. A writer for the US-based Grayzone, which promotes Russian and Assad regime disinformation, declared, “Biden opts to act as ISIS’ Air Force.”
US forces have fought the Islamic State inside Syria since 2014, with the American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces expelling ISIS from its last Syrian village in March 2019.
While Islamic State cells have stepped up attacks on pro-Assad forces this year, Iranian forces and allied militias have not been involved in operations against ISIS for years.