The US has launched air strikes against Iran-backed militants in eastern Syria after an American contractor was killed and five soldiers injured by a drone attack on a coalition base in the Arab state.
The Pentagon said US intelligence had assessed that the drone that targeted an American base in Syria on Thursday was of “Iranian origin”, highlighting the risk of a further escalation in tensions between Washington and Tehran.
The US strikes targeted facilities used by groups linked to Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, the Pentagon said in a statement.
“The air strikes were conducted in response to today’s attack as well as a series of recent attacks against coalition forces in Syria by groups affiliated with the IRGC [Revolutionary Guards],” said US defence secretary Lloyd Austin. “No group will strike our troops with impunity.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based group that monitors Syria, said the US air strikes killed eight Iranian-backed militants.
Iran has had a military presence in Syria since intervening to back Syrian president Bashar al-Assad after civil war erupted in the country in 2011.
The US has about 900 troops in Syria, mostly in the north-east, where they have been involved in the fight against Isis and have supported Kurdish-led militants battling the jihadi group.
John Kirby, the White House’s National Security Council spokesman, said on Friday that the US does not want war with Iran, but would defend its troops and facilities.
“We’re going to work to protect our people and our facilities as best we can. It’s a dangerous environment,” Kirby told CNN.
Iran-aligned Shia militants in Syria and Iraq, where the US has about 2,500 troops, stepped up attacks against American personnel and assets in both countries after then US president Donald Trump in 2018 withdrew from the nuclear accord Tehran had signed with world powers and imposed waves of sanctions on Iran.
Biden took office pledging to de-escalate tensions in the region and return the US to the 2015 accord and lift many sanctions on Iran if the country returned to compliance with the deal.
But indirect talks between the Biden administration and the Islamic Republic to revive the moribund accord have halted after Iran frustrated western powers by refusing to agree to a draft proposal to save the deal in September.
Iran’s relations with the west deteriorated further after the US and European governments widely condemned Tehran’s violent crackdown on nationwide protests that erupted last year. The west has been infuriated by Tehran’s decision to sell armed drones to Moscow which Russian forces have used in their war in Ukraine.
Iran has denied allegations that it has sold weapons to Russia to use in Ukraine, while blaming its foreign enemies for stoking the civil unrest in the Islamic republic.
In January, concerns grew that Tehran had moved closer to enriching uranium at weapons-grade level after the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN watchdog, discovered particles of uranium enriched at purity of 84 per cent at an Iranian nuclear facility.
It is not clear whether the particles were part of a deliberate plan by Iran to increase its enrichment or created accidentally. Most experts consider 90 per cent purity to be weapons-grade.
The Pentagon said the US “took proportionate and deliberate action intended to limit the risk of escalation and minimise casualties” in Thursday’s air strikes in Syria.
Biden previously ordered attacks against Iran-backed militants in Syria in 2021 and 2022 after similar assaults against US personnel.