The Biden administration defended its decision to carry out airstrikes in eastern Syria overnight, saying the sites it hit are connected to Iranian-backed groups believed to be involved in recent attacks in Iraq.
“We’re confident that these were legitimate targets utilized by groups associated with these recent attacks,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a briefing on Friday. The strikes sent an “unambiguous message” that “we will defend ourselves, that we will protect our interests. We are certainly going to act to defend our people.”
Even so, the U.S. strikes prompted debate among American lawmakers over the first overt use of military force under President Joe Biden.
The assault came after a series of rocket attacks in recent days on facilities in Iraq used by the U.S., including one that killed a contractor working with the U.S.-led coalition in the country.
At least 22 Iraqi militants allied with Iran were killed and three ammunition trucks were destroyed in the attack, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which gathers information from a network of activists on the ground in Syria.
Kirby said the U.S. destroyed nine facilities and damaged two others.
The Syrian foreign ministry said in a statement that the airstrike sent a “negative indication about the new U.S. administration’s policy” and that such attacks could escalate tensions in the region.
Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement Friday that the “strikes were the correct, proportionate response to protect American lives, and I look forward to more information on the administration’s response to Iran’s aggression.” Other Republicans echoed his approval.
But some Democrats voiced opposition or wanted more details. “This makes President Biden the seventh consecutive U.S. president to order strikes in the Middle East,” Representative Ro Khanna of California said in a statement. “There is absolutely no justification for a president to authorize a military strike that is not in self-defense against an imminent threat without congressional authorization.”
Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, who has long argued that presidents need to seek approval from lawmakers for most military operations, said in a statement that “the American people deserve to hear the administration’s rationale for these strikes and its legal justification for acting without coming to Congress.”
“I get nervous anytime we bomb anyone,” said House Rules Committee chairman Jim McGovern of Massachusetts. “I hope it doesn’t escalate.”
The Defense Department briefed congressional leaders before the strikes, said White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki. Administration officials have been briefing individual lawmakers and their staffs and will hold a “full classified briefing early next week at the latest,” she said.
Biden acted under his constitutional authority to defend U.S. personnel and deter the risk of additional attacks, according to a National Security Council aide who commented on condition of anonymity.
Kirby said two F-15E Strike Eagles dropped seven precision-guided munitions, “totally destroying nine facilities and partially destroying two facilities, making them functionally destroyed.”
“These strikes were authorized in response to recent attacks against American and coalition personnel in Iraq, and to ongoing threats to those personnel,” Kirby said in a statement Thursday night. “The strikes destroyed multiple facilities located at a border control point used by a number of Iranian-backed militant groups, including Kait’ib Hezbollah and Kait’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada.”
After a decade of civil war, Syria’s military is not in a strong position to respond directly to a U.S. attack. The country faced two attacks by the U.S. military during former President Donald Trump’s tenure, both over President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons in the conflict.
By hitting a facility in Syria, the U.S. avoids raising tensions that would come with a direct strike on Iran, which the Biden administration is seeking to persuade to return to the 2015 nuclear deal Trump abandoned three years ago. It also avoids a U.S. strike inside Iraq, which would have caused embarrassment for the fragile U.S.-allied government in Baghdad.
“The operation sends an unambiguous message,” Kirby said Thursday night. “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.”
The U.S. launched the strike one day after Biden spoke with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi. The two leaders “discussed the recent rocket attacks against Iraqi and coalition personnel and agreed that those responsible for such attacks must be held fully to account,” the White House said Wednesday in a statement.
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