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White House Says US Air Strikes in Syria Aim to Send Message

White House Says US Air Strikes in Syria Aim to Send Message

Friday, 26 February, 2021 - 05:45
A rocket attack on a military complex inside Erbil airport that hosts foreign troops deployed as part of a US-led coalition caused serious damage - AFP

US air strikes against Iranian-backed militias in Syria are meant to send the message that President Joe Biden will act to protect Americans, a White House spokeswoman said on Friday.


Future US actions in the region will be deliberative and will aim to deescalate tensions in Syria, spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.


Syria said the strikes in the east of the country were a cowardly act and urged Biden not to follow “the law of the jungle”.


An Iraqi militia official close to Iran said the strikes killed one fighter and wounded four, but US officials said they were limited in scope to show Biden’s administration will act firmly while trying to avoid a big regional escalation.


Washington and Tehran are seeking maximum leverage in attempts to save Iran’s nuclear deal reached with world powers in 2015 but abandoned in 2018 by then-President Donald Trump, after which regional tensions soared and fears of full-scale conflict grew.


“Syria condemns in the strongest terms the cowardly US attack on areas in Deir Ezzor near the Syrian-Iraqi border,” the Syrian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.


“It (the Biden administration) is supposed to stick to international legitimacy, not to the law of the jungle as (did) the previous administration.”


The air strikes, early on Friday Middle Eastern time, targeted militia sites on the Syrian side of the Iraqi-Syrian frontier, where groups backed by Iran control an important crossing for weapons, personnel and goods.


Western officials and some Iraqi officials accuse Iranian-backed groups of involvement in deadly rocket attacks on US sites and personnel in Iraq over the last month.


Russia, an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, also criticized the US strikes and called for “unconditional respect of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria.”


“What has happened is very dangerous and could lead to an escalation in the whole region,” a Russian parliamentarian, Vladimir Dzhabarov, was quoted as saying by RIA news agency.


Attacks on US forces in Iraq

The Iraqi militia official close to Iran said the air strikes had targeted positions of the Kataib Hezbollah paramilitary group along the border.


Later on Friday, Kataib Hezbollah confirmed the death of one of its fighters on the Syrian-Iraqi border and identified him as Sayyid Rahi Salam Zayid al-Sharifi.


Local sources and a medical source in eastern Syria told Reuters that at least 17 people had been killed, but gave no further details. That toll could not be confirmed.


In recent attacks, a non-American contractor was killed at a US military based at Erbil International Airport in Kurdish-run northern Iraq on Feb. 15 and, in the days that followed, rockets were fired at a base hosting US forces, and near the US Embassy in Baghdad.


Biden’s decision to strike only in Syria and not in Iraq gives Iraq’s government breathing room as it investigates the Erbil attack, which also wounded Americans.


Kataib Hezbollah has denied involvement in recent attacks against US interests. Iran denies involvement in attacks on US sites.


Several attacks, including the one on Erbil airport, have been claimed by little-known groups which some Iraqi and Western officials say are a front for established Iranian-backed groups such as Kataib Hezbollah.


Limited response

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a statement on Thursday that US forces had conducted air strikes against infrastructure used by Iranian-backed militant groups.


“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,” Kirby said.


He said the strikes destroyed multiple facilities at a border control point used by a number of Iranian-backed militant groups, including Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada.


A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the decision to carry out the strikes was meant to signal that, while the United States wanted to punish the militias, it did not want the situation to spiral into a bigger conflict.


The Iraqi military issued a statement saying it had not exchanged information with the United States over the targeting of locations in Syria, and that cooperation with the US-led coalition in Iraq was limited to fighting ISIS.


Iraq’s foreign minister will visit Iran on Saturday to discuss the situation in the region including ways to balance relations and avoid tension and escalation, his ministry said in a statement late on Friday.


It was not clear how, or whether, the US strikes might affect efforts to coax Iran back into negotiations about both sides resuming compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal.


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