Biden vows US will ‘forcefully protect our people’ as Iranian-backed groups launch more attacks on US troops in Syria
By Michael Callahan, Oren Liebermann, Natasha Bertrand and Haley Britzky, CNN
President Joe Biden emphasized Friday afternoon that the US will “forcefully protect our people,” a day after approving retaliatory airstrikes in response to a drone attack by an Iranian-backed group in Syria that left one American dead and more injured.
But it seemed the president’s actions, and warnings from US officials, had not deterred the attacks, as shortly before he spoke, another American service member was injured in a separate strike in Syria.
“Make no mistake: the United States does not — does not — seek conflict with Iran. But be prepared for us to forcefully protect our people,” Biden had said during remarks in Canada on Friday afternoon, where he is on a two-day visit.
“That’s exactly what happened last night,” he went on. “We’re going to continue to keep up our efforts to counter terrorist threats in the region.”
The president’s remarks marked his first public comments since the US carried out a strike Thursday evening on Iranian facilities that the Pentagon said were used by groups affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. The response — which the Pentagon said was “proportionate and deliberate action intended to limit the risk of escalation and minimize casualties” — came after a suspected Iranian drone struck a facility housing US personnel in the country, killing an American contractor and wounding five US service members.
On Friday, another US service member was injured but in stable condition following a rocket attack near oil and gas fields known as Conoco in the vicinity of Deir Ezzor in Syria, a US official confirmed to CNN.
“On the evening of March 24th, two attacks targeted U.S. and coalition forces in Syria. At 10:39 p.m. Syrian local time, multiple rockets targeted coalition forces at Mission Support Site Conoco,” the official said.
The official said a second attack occurred “at approximately 11:23 p.m. Syrian local time when three one-way attack unmanned aerial vehicles targeted Green Village. Two of the three unmanned aerial vehicles were struck down by coalition air defense systems.”
The attack on Green Village — a US base in northeast Syria — did not result in injuries but did leave one building damaged, the source said.
Biden said Friday that his “heart and deepest condolences” went out to the family of the contractor killed and the president wished a “speedy recovery” for those wounded. An official familiar with the matter told CNN that the other service members injured in the Thursday strike were in stable condition.
Earlier Friday, 10 rockets had targeted Green Village, where some of the 900 US troops in Syria are based. There were no injuries to US or coalition personnel, and no damage to facilities, the Pentagon said in a statement. One rocket, however, missed the coalition facilities by five kilometers and hit a civilian home, injuring two women and two children, a CENTCOM statement said.
The strikes are likely to increase tensions with Iran, with which the proxy groups are aligned, though Tehran isn’t always involved in directing attacks that they conduct. The US has already sanctioned Tehran for providing attack drones to Russia to use in the war in Ukraine. And on Thursday, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley reiterated US concerns that Iran has the potential to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon in less than two weeks and manufacture one within months.
Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, the Pentagon spokesman, emphasized to reporters Friday that the US is not seeking conflict with Iran.
“We don’t see escalation with Iran,” he said. “But the strikes that we took last night were intended to send a very clear message that we will take the protection of our personnel seriously and that we will respond quickly and decisively if they’re threatened.”
US target was supporting Iranian groups, official says
The drone used in the Thursday attack intentionally crashed into its target, the official said. The infrastructure that was targeted in the US response was not directly related to the suspected Iranian drone itself, the official said, but was instead targeted by the US because it was known to be supporting Iranian proxy groups in the country with munitions and intelligence.
The number of casualties from the US airstrike is still being determined, the official said.
A UK-based group monitoring the war in Syria, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claimed that eight Iranian-affiliated fighters were killed in the airstrikes. CNN could not verify that claim.
CNN has reached out to the Iranian and Syrian government foreign ministries for comment.
The Syrian and Iranian governments have not publicly commented, but Iran’s state-run Press TV cited a military source in Syria saying “the resistance groups reserve right to respond to the American attack and will take reciprocal action.”
Iran is an important ally to Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. Along with Hezbollah and other Iran-backed armed groups, Tehran has helped to prop up the embattled president.
The commander of US Central Command, Gen. Erik Kurilla, said the US could carry out additional strikes if there were more attacks. “We are postured for scalable options in the face of any additional Iranian attacks,” Kurilla said in a statement Thursday evening.
Kurilla said earlier Thursday that Iranian proxies had carried out drone attacks or rocket attacks against US forces in the Middle East 78 times since the beginning of 2021, an average of nearly one attack every 10 days.
“What Iran does to hide its hand is they use Iranian proxies,” Kurilla told a House Armed Services Committee hearing earlier in the day. “That’s either UAVs or rockets to be able to attack our forces in either Iraq or Syria.”
Asked if such attacks were considered an act of war, Kurilla said, “They are being done by the Iranian proxies is what I would tell you.”
Latest US strike against Iranian assets in region
The Biden administration has carried out airstrikes against militias affiliated with Iran on multiple occasions following previous attacks on US facilities in the region.
In February 2021, Biden’s first known military action was to carry out strikes against Iranian-backed militias after rocket attacks on US troops in Iraq. And in August, the US struck a group of bunkers used for ammunition storage and logistics support by Iranian proxies in Syria, after rockets landed near another US facility.
Milley visited US troops in Syria earlier this month, marking the first time he has visited as the top US general. Milley visited troops in northeast Syria who are there as part of the ongoing campaign to defeat ISIS, a mission the US carries out with its partners in the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.
But Milley’s visit also focused on the safety of US troops, his spokesman had said, and he inspected for protection measures in Syria.
Two weeks before Milley’s visit, US and coalition forces at Green Village in Syria came under rocket attack. No US or coalition troops were injured in that attack, but it underscored the threat emanating from adversaries in the region, often in the form of Iranian-backed proxies or militias.
Just two days before the rocket attack, four US troops and one working dog were injured in a helicopter raid against a senior ISIS leader in northeast Syria.
This story has been updated with additional details.
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CNN’s Kevin Liptak, Mostafa Salem and Eyad Kourdi contributed to this report.