Two US fighter jets have struck weapons and ammunition facilities in Syria in retaliation for attacks on their own forces by Iranian-backed militias as concerns grow that the Israel-Hamas conflict could escalate into regional unrest.
US President Joe Biden ordered strikes on the two facilities used by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and militia groups that it backs, the Pentagon said. They warned that the US will take additional measures if attacks by Iran’s proxies continue.
US and coalition troops have been attacked at least 19 times in Iraq and in Syria by Iran-backed forces in the past week.
The US sent fighter jets and two warships - the Gerald R. Ford-class and the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower - to bolster its military presence in the Mediterranean and Middle East following the Hamas attack on 7 October that killed more than 1,400 Israelis.
On Thursday, the Pentagon added that about 900 more US troops have arrived in the Middle East or are heading there to bolster air defences for personnel.
Iranian-backed proxies, including Hezbollah above the northern border with Israel, have consistently threatened regional escalation, including by attacking US positions. Iran is a major ally of Hamas.
US officials said that additional equipment, including air defences, are being set up in the Middle East to protect its military bases and positions.
US secretary of defence (sic) Lloyd Austin, announcing the two strikes, said they had nothing to do with the conflict in Israel and Gaza.
“These narrowly tailored strikes in self-defence were intended solely to protect and defend U.S. personnel in Iraq and Syria,” he said.
“They are separate and distinct from the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, and do not constitute a shift in our approach to the Israel-Hamas conflict. We continue to urge all state and non-state entities not to take action that would escalate into a broader regional conflict.”
Since 17 October, the Defense Department said that US and coalition forces have been targeted by drones or rockets at least 10 times in Iraq and three times in Syria.
One of these attacks resulted in the death of a US citizen contractor who suffered a cardiac incident while sheltering in place from the strikes. A further 21 US citizens suffered minor injuries.
Speaking overnight, Mr Austin said there was “no higher priority than the safety of US personnel”. He added: “These Iranian-backed attacks against US forces are unacceptable and must stop.”
It comes as Israel said on Friday military raids into Gaza were preparing “the next stage of the operation”, amid fears that a ground invasion of the Palestinian enclave could further risk regional retaliation.
Israel has bombarded the densely populated Gaza Strip following the Hamas attack on Israeli communities. Israel says Hamas killed some 1,400 people including children, and took more than 200 hostages, some of them infants and older adults.
The Hamas-controlled Gaza health ministry said on Thursday that 7,028 Palestinians had been killed in the retaliatory air strikes, including 2,913 children.
After Mr Biden said he had “no confidence in the number that the Palestinians are using”, referring to the death toll, the health ministry published a detailed list of the names of 6,747 people it claimed had been killed by Israeli airstrikes.
The list included the name, age, gender and ID number of each person killed, including those of 2,665 children.
The ministry said it did not name an additional 281 people who had been killed because their bodies could not be identified, bringing the total to 7,028.
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