(Bloomberg) -- The US military carried out airstrikes in Syria after an American contractor was killed when an alleged Iranian-made drone crashed into a coalition base, sharpening already-fraught tensions between Washington and Tehran.
The US said Friday that Iranian-backed groups later fired 10 rockets at a different coalition base in retaliation. President Joe Biden, looking to tamp down fears of escalation, asserted that the US wasn’t looking to widen hostilities.
“The United States does not — does not, emphasize — seek conflict with Iran,” Biden said at a press conference alongside Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. “But be prepared for us to act forcefully to protect our people.”
The US said the targets of the airstrikes were associated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The clashes occurred as diplomacy intensifies over Syria’s civil war, now in its 12th year, which has drawn in Russia, Iran, the US and Turkey.
Traditional US allies in the Middle East like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are going their own way in de-escalating with Iran and restoring ties with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He’s supported by Tehran and Moscow and remains under Western sanctions.
“The airstrikes 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,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a Pentagon statement.
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Friday that Biden had a discussion with his national security team on his way to Ottawa Thursday and received recommendations on potential responses.
Several people were wounded in the drone attack. Three of the wounded military personnel and a second contractor, who was also injured, were evacuated to medical facilities in Iraq, according to the Defense Department statement, which did not provide further details, including on how the drone attack unfolded.
There was no immediate reaction from Iran.
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General Michael Kurilla, the leader of US Central Command, called the drone assault “another in a series of attacks on our troops and partner forces.”
“Our troops remain in Syria to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS, which benefits the security and stability of not only Syria, but the entire region,” he said in a statement.
Last August, US helicopters hit Iranian-backed militants in Syria after rockets were fired at bases where Americans were stationed. In June 2021, Biden ordered air strikes in Syria and Iraq against militias tied to Iran.
His first military action as president, in February 2021, involved raids in eastern Syria on sites connected to Iranian-backed groups following a series of rocket attacks on facilities in Iraq used by the U.S., including one that killed a contractor.
In testimony to Congress Thursday, General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the US had almost 1,000 troops in Syria and that they had occasionally come under attack.
Russia has been pushing for the regional rehabilitation of Assad. Saudi Arabia is in discussions with Damascus to resume consular services between the two countries, according to an unnamed Saudi Foreign Ministry official cited by the state-owned Al-Ekhbariya television channel.
That comes two weeks after Saudi Arabia accelerated rapprochement with Iran, signing an agreement to restore diplomatic ties in a deal brokered by China.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan, who previously said that Syria’s isolation from the Arab world was “not workable,” spoke on Wednesday with his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amirabdollahian to discuss plans for an upcoming meeting.
--With assistance from Sam Dagher.
(Updates with Biden comments, in third paragraph.)
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