US carried out airstrikes against Iran-backed militia in Syria

The United States has carried out airstrikes in Syria targeting facilities near the Iraqi border used by Iranian-backed militia groups.

The Pentagon said the strikes were retaliation for a rocket attack in Iraq earlier this month that killed one civilian contractor and wounded a US service member and other coalition troops.

“This proportionate military response was conducted together with diplomatic measures, including consultation with coalition partners,” the Pentagon’s chief spokesperson, John Kirby, said in announcing the strikes.

“The operation sends an unambiguous message: President Biden will act to protect American and coalition personnel. At the same time, we have acted in a deliberate manner that aims to deescalate the overall situation in eastern Syria and Iraq.”

Kirby also said the US airstrikes “destroyed multiple facilities at a border control point used by a number of Iranian- backed militant groups”.

The airstrikes were the first military action undertaken by the Biden administration, which in its first weeks has emphasized its intent to put more focus on the challenges posed by China, even as threats in the Middle East persist.

The strikes appeared to be limited in scope, potentially lowering the risk of escalation.

The rocket attacks on US positions in Iraq were carried out as Washington and Tehran are looking for a way to return to the 2015 nuclear deal abandoned by Donald Trump.

In the attack earlier this month, rockets hit the US military base housed at Erbil international airport in the Kurdish-run region, killing one non-American contractor and injuring a number of American contractors and a US service member. Another salvo struck a base hosting US forces north of Baghdad days later hurting at least one contractor.

Biden administration officials condemned the 15 February attack, and while a little-known Shiite militia group has claimed responsibility, Kirby had said Tuesday that Iraq is in charge of investigating that attack and that “right now, we’re not able to give you a certain attribution as to who was behind these attacks”.

“Let’s let the investigations complete and conclude, and then when we have more to say, we will,” he added.

Mary Ellen O’Connell, a professor at Notre Dame Law School, criticized the US attack as a violation of international law.

“The United Nations Charter makes absolutely clear that the use of military force on the territory of a foreign sovereign state is lawful only in response to an armed attack on the defending state for which the target state is responsible,” she said. “None of those elements is met in the Syria strike.”