Iran-backed fighters in eastern Syria on alert after US strikes

BEIRUT – Iran-backed militants were on alert in eastern Syria on Saturday, a day after US forces launched retaliatory strikes on sites in the war-torn country, opposition activists said. The airstrikes came after a suspected Iranian-made drone killed a US contractor and injured six other Americans on Thursday.

After a day of rockets being fired at US troop bases in eastern Syria, things were calm. The missiles came after US airstrikes on three different areas in Syria’s eastern province of Deir el-Zour, which borders Iraq, opposition activists said.

While this isn’t the first time the US and Iran have launched attacks in Syria, the attack and US response threaten to derail recent efforts to de-escalate tensions across the Middle East, which has seen rival powers in recent years Days after years have taken steps towards easing turmoil.

“The calm continues as Iran-backed militiamen remain on alert amid concerns of possible fresh airstrikes,” said Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor.

President Joe Biden said Friday the US would respond “strongly” to protect its personnel after US forces retaliated with airstrikes on locations in Syria used by groups linked to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard . The attacks followed an attack by a suspected Iranian-made drone on Thursday that killed a US service provider and injured five American service members and one US service provider.

“The United States does not seek conflict with Iran,” Biden said in Ottawa, Canada, where he was on a state visit. But he said Iran and its proxies should be prepared for the US to “act violently to protect our people.” That’s exactly what happened last night.” Activists said the US bombing killed at least four people.

A statement by the Iran Advisory Center in Syria late Friday warned the US against launching further attacks in Syria. Otherwise, “we must avenge ourselves”. It warned that “it will not be an easy revenge”.

The center, speaking on behalf of Tehran in Syria, said the US airstrikes targeted places where food was being stored and other service centers in Deir el-Zour. Seven people were said to have been killed and seven others injured in the strike, without specifying the nationalities of the dead. An official with an Iran-backed group in Iraq said seven Iranians were killed in the attacks.

The observatory took the death toll from the US attacks to 19 and said they were killed in three locations, including a weapons depot in the Harabesh district of the city of Deir el-Zour and two military posts near the cities of Mayadeen and Mayadeen Boukamal.

Iran-backed militias and Syrian forces control the area, which has also been the subject of suspected Israeli airstrikes in recent months, allegedly targeting Iranian supply routes.

Two simultaneous attacks on US forces in Syria were launched late Friday, according to US officials. Officials said that according to preliminary information, there was a missile attack on the Conoco plant, where US troops are stationed, and one US soldier was wounded but is in stable condition. Around the same time, several drones were launched from Green Village in Deir el-Zour province, where US troops are also based. An official said all but one of the drones had been shot down and there were no US injuries there. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss military operations.

Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, which reports only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is suspected of conducting bomb-carrying drone attacks across the Middle East.

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said US intelligence had determined that the drone in Thursday’s attack was Iranian in origin but offered no other direct evidence to support the claim. The drone struck a coalition base in the northeast Syrian city of Hasakeh.

Iran relies on a network of proxy forces across the Middle East to counter the US and Israel, its nemesis in the region. The US has had forces in northeast Syria since 2015, when it was deployed as part of the fight against the Islamic State group, and maintains about 900 troops there, working with Kurdish-led forces that control about a third of Syria.

The slugfest came as Saudi Arabia and Iran worked towards reopening embassies in each other’s countries. The kingdom also recognized efforts to reopen a Saudi embassy in Syria, whose embattled President Bashar Assad was backed by Iran in his country’s long war. According to official figures, Iran has carried out 80 attacks on US forces and locations in Iraq and Syria since January 2021. The vast majority of these took place in Syria.

The US under Biden has previously attacked Syria over tensions with Iran – in February and June 2021 and in August 2022.

The conflict in Syria that began in 2011 has claimed the lives of almost half a million people.

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