BEIRUT (AP) — A strike Thursday by a suspected Iranian-made drone killed a U.S. contractor and wounded five American troops and another contractor in northeast Syria, the Pentagon said. American forces said they retaliated soon after with “precision airstrikes” in Syria targeting facilities used by groups affiliated with Iran's Revolutionary Guard, with activist groups saying the U.S. bombing killed at least four people.
The attack and the U.S. response threaten to upend recent efforts to de-escalate tensions across the wider Middle East, whose rival powers have made steps toward détente in recent days after years of turmoil.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement that the American intelligence community had determined the drone was of Iranian origin.
“The airstrikes were conducted in response to today’s attack as well as a series of recent attacks against coalition forces in Syria" by groups affiliated with the Revolutionary Guard, Austin said.
Iran relies on a network of proxy forces through the Mideast to counter the U.S. and Israel, its arch regional enemy.
The Pentagon said two of the wounded service members were treated on-site, while three others and the injured contractor were transported to medical facilities in Iraq.
Overnight, videos on social media purported to show explosions in Syria’s Deir el-Zour, a strategic province that borders Iraq and contains oil fields. Iran-backed militia groups and Syrian forces control the area, which also has seen suspected airstrikes by Israel in recent months allegedly targeting Iranian supply routes.
Iran and Syria did not immediately acknowledge the strikes, nor did their officials at the United Nations in New York respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press.
The activist group Deir Ezzor 24 put the death toll from the American strikes at four people. Deir Ezzor 24, which covers news in Deir el-Zour province, said the strikes hit the city of Deir el-Zour as well as militiamen posts near Mayadeen and Boukamal. It said the strikes also wounded people, including Iraqis.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, reported that the American strikes killed six Iranian-backed fighters at an arms depot in the Harabesh neighborhood in the city of Deir el-Zour. The Observatory, which relies on a network of local contacts in Syria, said U.S. bombing at a post near the town of Mayadeen killed two fighters.
A separate American strike hit a military post near the town of Boukamal along the border with Iraq, killing another three fighters, the Observatory said.
The AP could not immediately independently confirm the activist reports.
Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, which answers only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has been suspected of carrying out attacks with bomb-carrying drones across the wider Middle East.
The exchange of strikes came as Saudi Arabia and Iran have been working toward reopening embassies in each other’s countries. The kingdom also acknowledged efforts to reopen a Saudi embassy in Syria, whose embattled President Bashar Assad has been backed by Iran in his country’s long war.
U.S. Army Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla, the head of the American military’s Central Command, warned that American forces could carry out additional strikes if needed. “We are postured for scalable options in the face of any additional Iranian attacks,” Kurilla said in a statement.
Addressing the U.S. House Armed Services Committee on Thursday, Kurilla warned lawmakers that the “Iran of today is exponentially more militarily capable than it was even five years ago.” He pointed to Iran’s arsenal of ballistic missiles and bomb-carrying drones.
Kurilla also claimed that Iran had launched some 78 attacks on U.S. positions in Syria since January 2021.
“What Iran does to hide its hand is they use Iranian proxies,” Kurilla said.
Diplomacy to de-escalate the crisis appeared to begin immediately around the strikes. Qatar’s state-run news agency reported a call between its foreign minister and Jake Sullivan, the U.S. national security adviser. Doha has been an interlocutor between Iran and the U.S. recently amid tensions over Tehran’s nuclear program.
Qatar’s foreign minister also spoke around the same time with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian.
Dareen Khalifa, a senior Syria analyst with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, said that while Thursday’s exchange of strikes comes at a sensitive political moment due to the “overall deterioration of U.S.-Iran relations and the stalling of the nuclear talks,” she does not expect a significant escalation.
“These tit-for-tat strikes have been ongoing for a long time,” Khalifa said, although she noted that they usually do not result in casualties.
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