Between 2017 and 2023, Iranian-backed militias have launched dozens of attacks on U.S. forces in Syria and Iraq. Tensions escalated in March 2023 after a series of exchanges near U.S. positions in Syria when an Iranian drone attack killed a U.S. contractor and injured five troops and another contractor. Since Biden took office in January 2021, Iran’s proxies have attacked U.S. forces some 80 times. He has ordered four retaliatory strikes on targets linked to Iran.
U.S. presidents sought to be tough in their responses while repeatedly saying they wanted to avoid conflict with Iran. “Make no mistake, the United States does not, does not – I emphasize – seek conflict with Iran” but is prepared to “strike forcefully” to protect Americans, President Joe Biden said on March 24, 2023. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had warned that “no group will strike our troops with impunity” a day earlier.
For years, the United States has struggled to contain Iran and its network of proxies across the Middle East. The Islamic Republic has supplied drones, rockets, missiles and other weapons to militias in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and the Palestinian Territories. Iran is “exponentially more militarily capable than it was even five years ago,” Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla, the head of Central Command, told the U.S. House Armed Services Committee on March 23, 2023. U.S. forces were “postured for scalable options in the face of any additional Iranian attacks,” Kurilla warned after retaliatory U.S. strikes on the same day.
U.S.-Iran tensions flared in late March 2023. The exchanges included:
- March 23: An Iran-made suicide drone struck a coalition base near Hasakah in northeast Syria. One U.S. contractor was killed. Five U.S. troops and another contractor were wounded. The air defense system was reportedly down at the time. Four other service members were subsequently diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries.
- March 23: The United States launched two airstrikes on two facilities used by Iran-backed militias in northeastern Syria. The exact death toll was unclear. Eleven fighters were reportedly killed including six in Deir Ezzor, two near Mayadeen and three more near Abu Kamal along the border with Iraq, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The Pentagon said that eight militants were killed.
- March 24: Militants linked to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards fired 10 rockets at the Green Village base in northeast Syria. Two U.S. personnel were subsequently diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries. U.S. equipment and facilities were not damaged. But one stray rocket hit a civilian home and injured two women and two children.
- March 24: Rockets were reportedly launched at the Conoco base in eastern Syria. One U.S. soldier was injured.
- March 24: Several drones were reportedly launched at the Green Village base. All but one were downed. No injuries were reported.
The attacks came amid growing tensions between the United States and Iran over four flashpoints: Iran’s nuclear advances; human rights abuses; brutal crackdown on protests; and arming of Russia for the war in Ukraine. U.S. diplomatic efforts to revive the 2015 nuclear deal virtually collapsed after a final deal drafted by the European Union was rejected by Iran in August 2022.
Most attacks on coalition forces have not resulted in fatalities. One notable exception was the December 2019 rocket attack on the K-1 Air base near Kirkuk, Iraq. A U.S. contractor working as a linguist was killed in the assault, which the State Department attributed to an Iraqi militia armed, funded and trained by Iran. The incident reportedly pushed then President Donald Trump to order the assassination of General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite Qods Force. He was killed in a U.S. drone strike in January 2020.
Syria has become a battlefield for many forces since its civil war broke out in 2011. Bashar al Assad’s government has been supported by Russia and Iran, whose forces have fought both local rebels and ISIS. The Islamic Republic also mobilized 20,000 or more fighters from Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight in Syria.
After ISIS seized a third of Syria in 2014, the United States deployed troops and began conducting airstrikes as part of the anti-ISIS coalition. U.S.-led forces advised, armed and trained the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-led militia opposed to Assad as well as ISIS. The SDF, with significant coalition support, ousted ISIS from its last stronghold in Baghuz in northeastern Syria in March 2019. The United States maintained a small military presence – less than 1,000 troops – in Syria to support the SDF and help stabilize the area.
U.S. troops were stationed in strategic locations. For example, the Conoco base is near a major natural gas field captured by the SDF from ISIS in 2017. The Green Village is near the al Omar oil field. The al Tanf Garrison is located on the Baghdad-to-Damascus highway and near the border where Syria, Iraq and Jordan converge. The following are excerpts from a Pentagon press conference on March 24, 2023.
Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder
Ryder: “I'd like to take a moment to recap recent operations in the U.S. Central Command Area of Responsibility. Per our DOD statement last night, a U.S. contractor was killed yesterday and five U.S. service members and one additional U.S. contractor were wounded after a one-way unmanned aerial vehicle struck a maintenance facility on a coalition base near Hasakah in northeast -- northeast Syria at approximately 1:38 P.M. local time.
“Secretary Austin, at the direction of President Biden, authorized U.S. Central Command forces to conduct precision strikes into eastern Syria against facilities used by groups affiliated with Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The air strikes were conducted in response to yesterday's attack, as well as a series of recent attacks against coalition forces in Syria by groups affiliated with the IRGC.
“In terms of air strike details, two U.S. Air Force F-15E fighter aircraft, assigned to U.S. Air Forces Central and based in the CENTCOM Area of Responsibility, struck two IRGC-affiliated facilities at approximately 7:40 P.M. Eastern time, or 2:40 A.M. local. The facilities were located near Deir Ez-Zor in eastern Syria, and we're continuing to assess the outcome of the strikes. Initial indications are that the facilities were destroyed. In regards to any militant casualties, we're still assessing.
These precision strikes were intended to protect and defend U.S. personnel, and the U.S. took proportionate and deliberate action intended to limit the risk of escalation and minimize casualties. As Secretary Austin said in his statement, no group will strike our troops with impunity.
“Again, Secretary Austin, along with the Department of Defense offer our thoughts and prayers to the family and colleagues of the American contractor who was killed and with those who were wounded in the attack. Our forces deployed in Syria continue to conduct their important mission in support of the international coalition to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS.”
Question: A couple things. Just one quick clarification in the counterstrikes. Did the U.S. hit three or two? Was it three strikes or two strikes?
Ryder: “Two -- two different facilities, so two strikes.”
Question: And -- and then just a quick follow-up on the -- the actual situation now -- obviously, the U.S. was struck again -- Green Village was hit again in response to those -- the U.S. retaliatory strikes. Are things escalating there? Can we expect more? Is this turning into a far more escalatory situation in Syria for the troops?
Ryder: “As you highlight, this morning at approximately 8:05 a.m. local time, which would have been 1:05 a.m. Eastern Time, we had 10 rockets that targeted coalition forces at Green Village in northeast Syria. The attack resulted in no injuries to U.S. or coalition personnel and no damage to equipment or facilities.
“In terms of escalation, look, again, our focus in Syria is on the Defeat-ISIS mission, and that will remain our focus. We do not seek conflict with Iran, we don't seek escalation with Iran, but the strikes that we took last night were intended to send a very clear message that we will take the protection of our personnel seriously and that we will respond quickly and decisively if they are threatened.”
Question: So according to the DOD, the intelligence assessment is this -- UAV to be of Iranian origin. The groups that were targeted by the U.S. are affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. One American citizen was killed, six more were injured. Do you and the department and the Secretary of Defense hold Iran responsible for the death of an American citizen?
Ryder: “Look, we know that these groups are sponsored by Iran, so Iran certainly plays a role in terms of ensuring that -- that this type of activity doesn't happen.”
Question: Following the 10 rockets that were fired at Green Village, do you believe it was the same group that carried out -- the same group or same militia that carried out the rocket attack and the drone attack? Do you plan to respond to those rockets? And what will it take, do you believe, to restore deterrence there?
Ryder: “Our current assessment is that these -- these rocket attacks were conducted by IRGC-affiliated groups, that this rocket attack was done in an effort to retaliate from last night's attacks. Again, they did not cause any damage at the coalition facility.
“As far as any type of future action, I'm not going to talk about or preview potential future operations, other than to say we will always reserve the right to respond appropriately if our forces are threatened.”
Question: Are you not concerned that there will be an all-out war with Iran due to the continued exchange fire between the proxy groups and also -- they are attacking your bases in Syria?
Ryder: “First of all, we don't seek conflict or war with Iran. Our focus in Syria is on the enduring defeat of ISIS.
“You know, unfortunately, what you see in this situation are these Iranian-backed groups, not only in Syria but conducting operations in the Strait of Hormuz, in the Gulf, in Iraq, conducting destabilizing operations that are meant to export terror and instability -- you know, Iran sending drones to -- to Russia.
“And so again, the United States and our coalition and our allies and our partners, we're focused on trying to ensure stability, security in these regions, and that will continue to be our focus. We do not seek a wider conflict, and so we will -- that said, if our people are threatened, we will continue to respond appropriately and proportionately.”