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U.S. service members in Syria suffer ‘minor injuries’ in attack on bases

U.S. Central Command officers at the Tanf base in Syria in June. (Karoun Demirjian/The Washington Post)

BAGHDAD — Three U.S. service members suffered minor injuries on Wednesday when Iran-backed militants fired rockets at two military bases in northeast Syria, U.S. Central Command said in a statement.

U.S. forces responded with attack helicopters, the statement said, destroying three vehicles and equipment used to launch some of the rockets. It said initial assessments indicated that two or three suspected militants were also killed.

The attacks on the bases in Deir al-Zour province took place Wednesday night, the military said, and came just one day after U.S. forces conducted airstrikes in Syria targeting infrastructure used by groups with ties to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Those strikes were also carried out in Deir al-Zour at President Biden’s direction after U.S. forces reported an attack by drone aircraft on one of their remote outposts last week.

Deir Ezzor 24, a group that monitors the area, said 10 fighters were killed in that strike, including at least two non-Syrian fighters believed to be part of the Fatemiyoun Division, a militia of Shiite fighters from Afghanistan aligned with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The group said the strike set fire to three buildings in a complex of warehouses called Ayyash — depots in the city that have been targeted by U.S. strikes before, where both Syrian and foreign Iran-linked groups are stationed.

A small contingent of U.S. forces is based in Syria and Iraq to support local troops in their fight against what remains of the Islamic State group. Those operations have been affected in recent years by a growing tide of attacks by groups linked to Iran, say officials from the U.S.-led coalition, Operation Inherent Resolve.

The tit-for-tat escalation between U.S. forces and Iran-aligned groups could threaten negotiations to salvage the nuclear deal with Tehran — an agreement President Donald Trump abandoned in 2018.

“The United States does not seek conflict with Iran, but we will continue to take the measures necessary to protect and defend our people,” Centcom said in its statement Wednesday.

Two of the U.S. service members who suffered minor injuries were still under evaluation, the military said.

“We are closely monitoring the situation,” said Centcom commander, Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla.

No casualties or damage were reported in the Aug. 15 attack on the Tanf outpost, a strategically located garrison near a Syria-Iraq border crossing. The outpost is near a major land supply route used by Iran to smuggle arms into Syria and to its Hezbollah allies.

But the pace of attacks against U.S.-led coalition troops in Iraq and Syria picked up in 2019 as Tehran and the armed groups it backs sought to hasten Washington’s withdrawal from the region.

They increased significantly the following year, after Trump ordered the assassination of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani as his convoy left Baghdad Airport. That drone strike electrified tensions, prompting Iraqi lawmakers to urge the expulsion of American troops as Iran and the United States hovered on the brink of outright war.

In February 2021, U.S. forces hit Iran-linked militias at a strategic border crossing between Iraq and Syria in an attack that the Pentagon also said was a response to attacks on U.S. personnel and allies inside Iraq. There were further retaliatory U.S. strikes against those militias in June 2021, in Syria and Iraq.

A spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve said about 30 indirect-fire attacks have been recorded on their areas of operation in Syria and Iraq since the start of 2022.

“The pace of these incidents ebbs and flows, since they are harassing in nature,” he said.

More worrisome, coalition officials say, have been periodic waves of drone attacks, particularly in Iraq. Some of the aircraft are rudimentary and appear capable of inflicting little damage. But others have been large and packed with small pieces of metal such as ball bearings.

The spokesman did not provide figures for the number of drone attacks, like the one on Aug. 15, targeting coalition forces over the past year.

Some of the attacks on the Tanf outpost have been attributed to Iran, including in October, and in June, Russian aircraft struck a section of the base inhabited by Syrian opposition fighters — after giving U.S. forces a half-hour’s notice.

Iran is putting down roots in eastern Syria

Iran has been recruiting Syrians to allied militias in Deir al-Zour, providing services the deeply distrusted government cannot deliver and putting down roots in a strategic province that could be used to further Tehran’s regional interests even after the Syrian civil war eventually ends and Iran’s support for President Bashar al-Assad is no longer as vital.

Col. Joe Buccino, the communications director at U.S. Central Command, said Tuesday’s precision strikes were a “proportionate, deliberate action” designed to limit the risk of escalation and casualties while achieving their goal of “disrupting or deterring attacks by Iran-backed groups.”

Neither Syria nor Iran officially commented on Tuesday’s strike, but in a short news item on the attack, Iran’s semiofficial Mehr news agency called the move “provocative,” adding that “the strikes came even as the United States aimed to respond to a draft agreement proposed by the European Union” — a reference to ongoing indirect talks between Washington and Tehran aimed at salvaging the nuclear deal with Iran.

Pannett reported from Sydney and Dadouch from Beirut.