Rockets landed at a US military base in eastern Syria, prompting US forces to return fire on Monday, a day after the US carried out airstrikes on Iranian-backed militias, according to a spokesman for the US-led military mission in Syria.
A US defense official with direct knowledge of the rocket fire said it is “likely” they were launched by Iranian-backed militias operating in the immediate area, near Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria, but the origin of the rockets has not been confirmed and the official could not immediately say how many projectiles were fired. Some rockets did land within the immediate vicinity of US troops, but early reports indicated there were no injuries.
“U.S. Forces in Syria were attacked by multiple rockets. There are no injuries and damage is being assessed,” Col. Wayne Maratto, a spokesman for the US-led mission in Syria, tweeted.
Maratto later added in a second tweet that, “U.S. Forces in Syria, while under multiple rocket attack, acted in self- defense and conducted counter-battery artillery fire at rocket launching positions.”
On Sunday, the White House said it had directed the military to conduct defensive precision airstrikes against facilities used by Iran-backed militia groups in the Iraq-Syria border region following a recent spate of attacks against US military facilities and personnel in Iraq by a new class of Iranian-made drones that US officials say can evade US surveillance and defenses.
President Joe Biden, speaking at the White House during a visit by outgoing Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, referred to some US lawmakers who think he might have overstepped his authority by directing the Sunday strikes and want Congress to authorize military action.
“I directed last night’s airstrikes targeting sites used by the Iranian-backed militia groups responsible for recent attacks on US personnel in Iraq,” Biden said Monday. “And I have that authority under Article II, and even those up in the Hill who are reluctant to acknowledge that have acknowledged that’s the case.”
Monday’s apparent retaliation took place at an oil field site the US calls “Green Village” in the larger security zone where some 900 US troops operate to protect support local Syrian fighters against ISIS.
Secretary of State Tony Blinken, speaking in Rome on Monday, said the US airstrikes on the Iraq-Syria border were meant “to disrupt and deter” attacks against US personnel in Iraq, though they prompted condemnation from Baghdad.
“We took necessary, appropriate, deliberate action that is designed to limit the risk of escalation, but also to send a clear and unambiguous deterrent message,” Blinken said at a news conference in Rome, where he is attending a meeting focused on stability in Syria and the terror group ISIS.
The exchange marks an escalation in tensions between Washington and Tehran, which have been gridlocked in talks to coordinate their mutual return to compliance with the 2015 nuclear treaty. The US has signaled that it could walk away if progress isn’t seen soon, while Iran said Monday it has yet to decide whether it will permit international inspectors to monitor and verify its commitments under the deal.
During his meeting with Rivlin on Monday, Biden committed to the relationship between the US and Israel – and to making sure Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon.
“Iran will never get a nuclear weapon on my watch, as they say,” Biden said.
The rocket fire also comes less than two weeks after the election of a hardline candidate to be Iran’s next president.
Blinken and the State Department were “very engaged” as planning for the US attack on Iranian-backed militias came together, State Department officials tell CNN, adding that Sunday’s strike was a carefully planned mission. “There was a process as you might expect, involving the military, State Department, other relevant department and agencies that proceeded these operations,” explained one official.
Members of the de-ISIS coalition attending the meeting in Rome did not raise the US airstrikes along the Syria-Iraq border during meetings on Monday, senior State Department officials said.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki, discussing the Sunday strikes, said Biden also viewed them as “necessary” and “appropriate.”
“The President’s view is that it was necessary, appropriate, and a deliberate action… designed to limit the risk of escalation,” Psaki told reporters Monday at the White House. “We will take, and he believes, we should and will take, necessary appropriate measures to defend US personnel, partners, and allies in the region.”
The Iraqi government, one of those allies, condemned the US strikes for violating Iraqi sovereignty and said it was “studying all available legal options to prevent the recurrence of attacks that violate Iraq’s airspace and territory,” according to a statement from the Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi’s office on Monday.
The statement, issued after an emergency meeting of the National Security Ministerial Council, said that the council is “conducting an investigation into the circumstances of the strike,” said it “violates Iraqi sovereignty” and rejected “making Iraq an arena for settling accounts or using its lands and skies to attack its neighbors.”
The statement added that talks with Washington about the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq have “reached advanced stages, to the level of discussing the logistical details of the withdrawal of combat forces from Iraq, the details of which will be announced later.”
In Washington, the strikes renewed debate about the President’s authority to take military action without consulting Congress – particularly because Biden had already targeted Iran-backed militias in Syria in February – but Democratic lawmakers offered statements of support.
Rep. Adam Schiff, the California Democrat who heads the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said that, “based on what I have learned so far, I believe these were an appropriate and reasonable use of force intended for defensive purposes.” Schiff added that the House Intelligence Committee will “closely review the basis for this strike, including an assessment of whether this action will truly deter or prevent further attacks by these militias using [drones] and other means,” and has also asked for a Pentagon briefing on the strikes.
At the White House, Psaki said the administration sees its strikes in Iraq and Syria as separate from the talks to revive and expand the Iran nuclear deal, which Blinken recently said have been slowed by “serious differences” between the US and Iran.
“We don’t see that on the same exact track,” Psaki said.
“We continue to believe and have never held back from noting that Iran is a bad actor in the region,” Psaki said adding, “At the same time we’re moving forward and seeking the opportunity to move forward on negotiations to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon is in our national interests and that’s how we will evaluate.”
No imminent deal
Blinken told the New York Times in an interview published Saturday that the US could walk away from talks to salvage the Iran nuclear deal and said that a potential decision point is “getting closer.”
That decision could come if Iran continues to develop its nuclear program beyond the limits allowed in the Iran nuclear deal, Blinken said. “If this continues, if they continue to spin more sophisticated centrifuges at higher and higher levels, we will get to a point where it will be very difficult as a practical matter” to return to the deal as it was initially agreed to, he said.
Blinken made similar comments in a news conference in France on Friday, saying that he could not pinpoint a deadline when the US would walk away.
“I can’t put a date on it, but it’s something that we are conscious of. Having said that, we are only going to reach an agreement with Iran if it makes good on its obligations under the JCPOA. And again, we’re just not there yet, so we’ll see,” Blinken told reporters.
Blinken also made clear that after six rounds of indirect negotiations in Geneva over the last few months, a deal is not imminent.
“We still have serious differences with Iran, with regard to returning to mutual compliance with the JCPOA. Our teams are going back for a seventh round of indirect negotiations in the coming days,” Blinken said. “We’ll see if we can bridge the differences, but they’re real.”
CNN’s Aqeel Najim in Baghdad, Allie Malloy, Maia Noah and Nikki Carvajal in Washington, Kylie Atwood in Rome, Mostafa Salem in Abu Dhabi and Hira Humayun in Atlanta