The operation appeared to mark the opening of what officials have said would be a multiday campaign aimed at various targets close to Iran, which the Biden administration has blamed for a spiraling of militant violence since the start of Israel’s war in the Gaza Strip, including a drone attack Sunday that killed three U.S. service members and injured dozens more at a remote outpost in Jordan.
The Biden administration has labeled Tehran responsible for a steady drumbeat of attacks in Iraq and Syria, where U.S. troops remain as part of a mission to prevent a resurgence of the Islamic State, and in Yemen, where Houthi militants have fired on ships off the Arabian peninsula, because it has long funded and armed those groups.
The strikes, which began at 4 p.m. Washington time on Friday, are an attempt to inflict greater damage on Tehran and its proxies than they suffered in previous retaliatory actions carried out by U.S. forces in recent months, which thus far have failed to end the violence.
The Islamic Resistance in Iraq, an umbrella group that includes several militias affiliated with Iran, claimed responsibility for the attack on Tower 22, the American base close to Jordan’s shared border with Iraq and Syria. The slain troops, two women and a man, were part of an Army Reserve unit based in Georgia.
On Friday, Syria’s state-run media reported that “U.S. aggression” resulted in fatalities and injures in multiple sites in desert areas, according to Reuters. American officials did not provide immediate information about casualties or what destruction the strikes had caused.
Central Command, in a statement posted on social media, said the attack involved more than 125 precision munitions that had been fired at assets belonging to “militia groups and their IRGC sponsors who facilitated attacks against U.S. and Coalition forces.”
The intensifying standoff with Iran comes as President Biden seeks to balance calls from Republicans for a more forceful response to violence on American forces with his goal of preventing conflagration across the Middle East, at a time when the conflict between close U.S. ally Israel and Hamas in Gaza has plunged the region into turmoil.
Biden attended a ceremony marking the repatriation of the three service members’ remains on Friday at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
Anticipation has mounted this week about the expected U.S. response after Biden promised to “hold all those responsible to account,” and his defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, said the United States would employ its military might to strike back at its adversaries.
“They have a lot of capability,” Austin said Thursday of Iran and its allies. “I have a lot more.”
But the president must also consider how to hit back without plunging the Middle East into even greater chaos, which could threaten Israel and undermine U.S. interests across the region, or opening a direct conflict with Iran, a significant military power that has shown itself willing, though its proxies, to target a wide array of American sites over the decades.
Biden must also calibrate his response in a way that will minimize its impact on Washington’s already fraught ties with the government in Baghdad, which has called for a reduction or end to the U.S. military presence in Iraq. Some 2,500 U.S. troops remain in Iraq, and another 900 in neighboring Syria.
As he intensifies his reelection campaign, the president must also showcase his national security credentials and his ability to keep Americans safe.