Biden ordered airstrike after determining Iran supported rocket attacks
The attacks and retaliatory strike marked the first major military action of the Biden administration.
President Joe Biden’s decision to order a U.S. airstrike on a border crossing used by Iran-backed militia groups in eastern Syria on Thursday came after U.S. officials determined Tehran facilitated a series of recent attacks endangering Americans in Iraq, according to defense officials.
Planning for a potential military response began soon after Feb. 15, when a dozen rockets targeted coalition forces outside Irbil International Airport, killing one non-U.S. contractor and wounding nine more people, including five Americans, according to one of the officials.
But the president held off on ordering a strike immediately while officials worked to determine who was responsible for the attack, and a proportional response that would avoid escalation, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal planning.
The attacks and retaliatory strike marked the first major military action of the Biden administration. The strike was calculated to signal to Iran that such attacks through proxies in the region would not be tolerated, the officials said, while avoiding escalation into a wider conflict as Biden seeks a diplomatic breakthrough with Tehran on the Iran nuclear deal.
When asked what message he hoped to send to Iran with the strike, Biden told reporters: “You can’t act with impunity.”
“Be careful,” he added.
The “proportionate” military response was conducted along with diplomatic measures, including consulting with coalition partners, the Pentagon said. A senior Biden administration official said DoD called Germany and other allies before the strike.
“The operation sends an unambiguous message: President Biden will act to protect American and coalition personnel,” said Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby. “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 added Friday that the message goes not just to Iran, but any of America’s adversaries in the region.
In the days after the initial Irbil attack on Feb. 15, Iran-backed militia groups also launched rockets against Balad Air Base, which houses American contractors who provide support to Iraq’s fleet of U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets, and near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. But the Biden administration refrained from attributing the attacks to Iran in public, saying they would support an Iraqi-led investigation.
Once U.S. officials determined that Iran at least facilitated, if not approved outright, the Irbil attack, the Pentagon presented Biden with a broad range of military options, according to a defense official. Biden chose the “middle” option, limiting the number of targets in order to keep collateral damage and civilian casualties to a minimum.
The Pentagon briefed congressional leadership before the operation, and briefed members and staff on Friday, according to a spokesperson for the National Security Council. The administration plans to conduct a full classified briefing early next week, and sooner if Congress requests it.
Officials went through a “rigorous process” ahead of the strike, including a legal review, the spokesperson said. In ordering the operation, Biden acted “pursuant to inherent self-defense powers enshrined in our Constitution and the UN Charter.”
“The targets were chosen to correspond to the recent attacks — the facilities are utilized by KSS and KH — and to deter the risk of additional attacks over the coming weeks,” the spokesperson said. “The strikes were necessary to address the threat and proportionate to the prior attacks.”
At around 6 p.m. EST on Thursday night, Air Force F-15E fighter jets dropped seven 500-pound precision bombs on seven targets in eastern Syria, the official said. All bombs hit their targets, a crossing used by several Iran-backed militia groups to move weapons and other goods across the border. Initial reports suggest there were no casualties, militant or civilian.
Nine facilities were destroyed, and two additional buildings were partially damaged, Kirby said Friday.
Biden made the strategic decision to conduct the strike in Syria, rather than on Iraqi soil, in order to avoid pressure on the Iraqi government, the official said.
“We were told that the U.S. administration took care to respect Iraqi sovereignty,” an Iraqi official told POLITICO.
The operation was based on intelligence that Iraqi and Kurdish partners helped develop about the types of facilities being used by the two groups they believe are responsible for the recent attacks, Kirby said Friday.
Conducting an airstrike in Syria is also less politically complicated for the Biden administration than an operation in Iraq, said Becca Wasser, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security. The U.S. does not need to request the permission of the Syrian government as it does not recognize Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, she said.
Kirby added that the U.S. gave Russian officials a heads-up that the attack would occur, citing a need to ensure operational security.
The airstrike came after Biden spoke Tuesday with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. The White House readout of the call hinted at the coming action. The men “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 deliberate approach also signaled that Biden would continue using U.S. air power to meet his goals while avoiding putting troops in harm’s way, experts said.
“By choosing a limited strike on infrastructure, the administration is messaging that it will act to make good on its deterrent threats, but leveraging air power to engage in a limited fashion to not get bogged down on the ground,” Wasser said.
Thursday night’s strikes destroyed several facilities at a border control point used by a number of Iran-backed militia groups linked to the attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq, including Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada, Kirby said.
Immediately after the Irbil attack, a militia group widely known to have close ties to Tehran claimed credit.
Even as it targets Iran by hitting its proxy groups, the Biden administration also is seeking to restore the Iran nuclear deal, which former President Donald Trump quit in 2018. Trump reimposed sanctions that the deal had lifted; in response, Iran has taken steps to restart its nuclear program.
The Biden administration says the U.S. will return to the agreement, and lift sanctions, if Iran gets back into compliance. Iran says the U.S. needs to lift sanctions first. While the rhetoric has been tough on both sides, due to European efforts, Iranian and U.S. officials may meet in March to discuss ways to save the 2015 agreement.
However, there is concern in Congress about whether Biden can handle Iran’s dangerous activity even as he pushes for engagement on a the nuclear issue, a congressional aide said.
“The moment Biden stepped foot in the Oval Office he knew that his decision to adjust relations with several Arab partners will inevitably lead to policy dilemmas,” said Bilal Saab, a Pentagon official in the Trump administration who is now a senior fellow with the Middle East Institute. “But this military strike is absolutely the first real test of his administration’s Middle East policy because it has the potential to lead to unpredictable outcomes, and they knew that.”
Natasha Bertrand, Nahal Toosi and Erin Banco contributed to this report.
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