AFP — Syria and Iran on Friday condemned a deadly US airstrike on Iranian-backed militias with Damascus calling it a “bad sign” from the new Biden administration and Tehran saying it would further destabilize the region.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said two F-15E “Strike Eagles” dropped seven precision-guided munitions Thursday on facilities in eastern Syria used by the militias believed to be behind a spate of rocket attacks on US troops in Iraq.
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said President Joe Biden was sending “an unambiguous message that he’s going to act to protect Americans and when threats are posed, he has the right to take an action at the time and in the manner of his choosing.”
Psaki said the decision behind the strike — the first since Biden took office — was “deliberative” and the objective is “deescalating activity in both Syria and Iraq.”
Syria condemned the strike as “cowardly American aggression.”
“It is a bad sign regarding the policies of the new US administration which should adhere to international [norms],” the foreign ministry said.
The Iranian foreign ministry strongly condemned what it called “illegal attacks” that are a “clear violation of human rights and international law.”
Foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said the strikes by “the new US administration [would] lead to intensifying military conflicts and further destabilize the region.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 22 fighters from Iraq’s state-sponsored Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary force were killed when US warplanes hit three trucks loaded with munitions coming from Iraq near the Syrian border town of Albu Kamal. The British-based war monitor has regularly been accused by Syrian war analysts of inflating casualty numbers, as well as inventing them wholesale.
The raid also destroyed border posts of the Hashed, an umbrella group that includes small militias with ties to Iran, it said.
Kirby said the Pentagon had received “preliminary details” about casualties but declined to release any figures.
He said nine “facilities” used by the militias were “totally destroyed” and two were “partially destroyed.”
It was the first US military action targeting such groups since Biden took office five weeks ago and came just as Washington had opened the door to resuming negotiations with Tehran over its nuclear program.
Kirby said the location targeted was used by Kataeb Hezbollah and Kataeb Sayyid al-Shuhada, two Iraqi pro-Iran groups operating under the Hashed.
Kataeb Hezbollah said one of its fighters was killed and slammed the strike as “barbaric aggression” and a “heinous crime in violation of international law.”
Kirby said Iraqi and Kurdish partners had provided intelligence that led to the identification of the groups behind the rocket attacks.
Iraq’s defense ministry denied the US had coordinated with it to conduct the strike, saying it only works together with the US-led coalition in the fight against the Islamic State group.
Syria’s ally Russia also condemned the attack, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov questioning the Biden administration’s plans in Syria.
“It is very important for us to understand the United States’ strategic line on the ground,” Lavrov said.
Kirby responded to criticism by Lavrov that Moscow had been notified just four or five minutes before the US struck the targets.
“We did what we believe was the proper amount of notification for this,” he said. “It shouldn’t come as a shock to anybody that we’re going to do what we have to do to notify but we’re also going to do what we have to do to protect our forces.”
The US also notified Israel ahead of the strike, according to a Friday report, in a routine update that occurs whenever US operations may affect Israel and vice versa. Israeli officials were reportedly highly pleased with the attack, and said they see the strikes as a positive signal about the new administration’s posture toward Iran.
The US action followed three rocket attacks on facilities in Iraq used by US and coalition forces fighting IS.
One of those strikes, on a military complex in the Kurdish regional capital Arbil on February 15, killed a civilian and a foreign contractor working with coalition forces, and wounded several US contractors and a soldier.
Iran nuclear deal
Last week, the Biden administration offered talks with Iran led by European allies as it seeks to salvage a 2015 nuclear deal, left on the brink of collapse after Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump withdrew from it and imposed punishing sanctions on Iran.
But the new administration has also made clear it would not brook “malign activities” by Iran.
In Paris, a foreign ministry source said France strongly condemns the “unacceptable” rocket attacks on coalition forces in Iraq and “stands firmly alongside its American ally.”
France is working with international and regional partners to ease tensions in the region, the source said.
Iran is believed to be searching for an opportunity to avenge the US assassination of top general Qasem Soleimani early last year.
Soleimani, a senior Revolutionary Guards commander, was Iran’s key liaison to its allies in Iraq and Syria, and elsewhere in the region.
He was killed in a US drone strike just as he arrived in Baghdad for meetings with top Iraqi officials.