In August, tensions flared between the United States and Iran in Syria. The United States launched airstrikes on Iran-backed militias in response to drone and rocket attacks on bases housing U.S. troops on August 15. “We've sent a very loud and clear message and a proportional message, that any threat against our forces who are operating in Syria, or anywhere, will not be tolerated,” Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, said on August 25. But Washington also emphasized that it did not seek conflict with Iran. The tit-for-tat attacks included:
- August 15: Iran-backed militants fired rockets near the Green Village base in northeastern Syria. Iran-backed groups launched two drones at the al Tanf Garrison in southern Syria. No casualties or damage were reported.
- August 23: U.S. warplanes struck nine bunkers in eastern Syria. The targets, which were all located in Deir Ezzor, had reportedly been used for ammunition storage and logistics support by Iran-backed groups. A Britain-based monitor said that at least six militants were killed.
- August 24-25: Iran-backed militants fired rockets at two bases in northeastern Syria, Conoco and the Green Village. Three U.S. troops were injured. In response, U.S. forces used helicopters, gunships and artillery to destroy three vehicles and rocket launchers used in previous attack. Two or three militants were killed, according to the Pentagon. U.S. warplanes and artillery later fired on militants preparing to launch rockets. One additional militant was killed.
As of 2022, the United States had some 900 troops in Syria and 2,500 troops in Iraq as part of Operation Inherent Resolve, the international coalition to defeat ISIS. In the first eight months of 2022, the coalition reported that their forces had come under 30 indirect-fire attacks – usually rockets – in both countries. In Syria, Iran-backed forces attacked bases housing U.S. troops at least six times in the first eight months of 2022. “The pace of these incidents ebbs and flows, since they are harassing in nature,” a coalition spokesperson said in late August.
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.
Tensions over multiple issues – such as border security and weapons transfers – have sucked other regional players into Syria as well. Since 2013, Israel has launched hundreds of attacks on Iran’s forces and its allies in Syria, as part of a wider shadow war with the Islamic Republic. Israeli airstrikes have targeted Iranian military positions as well as weapons caches and transport convoys to prevent Iran from delivering advanced rockets and missiles to Hezbollah through Syria.
Turkey, Syria’s northern neighbor, has launched four military operations beginning in 2016. Turkey has been concerned about the presence of jihadi groups as well as armed Kurdish militias along its southern border.
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 U.S. presence has become caught up in the wider regional conflict because the base blocks a key route reportedly used by Iran to supply weapons its network of allies and proxies in Syria and Lebanon.
The attacks in August 2022 overlapped with intense diplomacy, launched in April 2021, to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. “What the strikes last night illustrated is that our commitment to push back against Iran’s support for terrorism, militancy and the threats they engage in against our people in the region or elsewhere are not linked to wherever we end up on the nuclear deal,” Colin Kahl, the under secretary of defense for policy, said on August 24. The following are statements rom from senior U.S. and military officials, including U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), with a detailed timeline of each attack in 2022.
CENTCOM Statement on Response to Rocket Attacks
Over the past 24 hours, in response to yesterday’s rocket attacks on Mission Support Site Conoco and Mission Support Site Green Village in northeast Syria, CENTCOM forces struck at Iran-affiliated militants in the area with AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, AC-130 gunships, and M777 artillery, resulting in four enemy fighters killed and seven enemy rocket launchers destroyed.
“We will respond appropriately and proportionally to attacks on our servicemembers,” said Michael “Erik” Kurilla, commander of US Central Command. “No group will strike at our troops with impunity. We will take all necessary measures to defend our people.”
CENTCOM Statement on Attacks at Conoco, Green Village Bases
U.S. forces responded today to rocket attacks at two sites in Syria, destroying three vehicles and equipment used to launch some of the rockets. Initial assessments indicate that two or three suspected Iran-backed militants conducting one of the attacks were killed during the U.S. response.
The attacks began at approximately 7:20 p.m. local time in Syria when several rockets landed inside the perimeter of Mission Support Site Conoco in northeast Syria. Shortly after, additional rockets landed in the vicinity of Mission Support Site Green Village.
One U.S. service member in Mission Support Site Conoco was treated for a minor injury and has been returned to duty. Two others are under evaluation for minor injuries.
“We are closely monitoring the situation,” said Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla, commander of CENTCOM. “We have a total spectrum of capability to mitigate threats across the region, and we have every confidence in our ability to protect our troops and Coalition partners from attacks.”
U.S. forces used attack helicopters to respond. The response was proportional and deliberate. The United States does not seek conflict with Iran, but we will continue to take the measures necessary to protect and defend our people.
Additional details will be released when they become available.
Excerpted Briefing by Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Dr. Colin Kahl
Kahl: Let me start by acknowledging that last night at President Biden's direction, U.S. military forces conducted precision airstrikes in Deir ez-Zor, Syria, which is in eastern Syria.
Our forces accomplish their mission of destroying several infrastructure facilities used by militia groups affiliated with Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC. The strike was necessary to protect and defend us personnel in Syria, which had been the targets of several recent attacks by Iran-backed militia groups, including the most recent ones on August 15.
Our response was proportionate and precise. It was designed to minimize the risk of casualties, and it responded to the nature of the attacks by Iran-backed militia groups. That being said, we cannot accept further attacks on our personnel.
This operation is a demonstration the United States will not hesitate to defend itself against Iranian and Iran-backed aggression when it occurs.
Q: There have been reports of additional U.S. strikes in Syria. Can you give us any additional information about that?
Kahl: So, just on the on the Syria strikes, we're tracking the same reports you are, that there's been an exchange in Syria. I don't have any details to provide you at -- when we have more, we will give you more. I will say, as a general matter, we're not going to hesitate to defend ourselves. And we've communicated this both in the actions that were took last night, the nature of those actions, and also what we have communicated to the Iranians. We're not going to tolerate attacks by Iran-backed forces on our forces anywhere in the world to include in Syria, and we won't hesitate to protect ourselves and take additional measures as appropriate.
Now, in this particular case, our response was, I think, extraordinarily carefully calibrated. It was meant to be proportional to the attacks that the Iran-backed groups carried out on August 15. It was very precise. We had essentially scoped out 11 bunker targets on this site, we ended up prosecuting nine of them because shortly before the strike, there was new evidence that there might be individuals near two of the other bunkers. So, we held off striking those out of an abundance of caution, because our goal was not to produce casualties in this instance. But we will continue to respond if our people are attacked. But as it relates to the additional reports will tell you more when we know more.
Q: On Iran, you just mentioned that the U.S. communicated to the Iranians that we will not tolerate any attacks on U.S. troops. Was that made directly--through direct channels to Iran?
Kahl: On Iran, I'm not going to go much further than I already said, we have passed messages. I'm not going to go through exactly what channels. We have lots of ways of communicating to them. And we've tapped all of those channels to make it clear to the Iranians that what they're doing is unacceptable. And that we will defend ourselves where necessary.
I should say, by the way, you know, the other piece of Iran business right now is the conversation about the JCPOA--the nuclear deal. And I should just make clear that what the strikes last night illustrated is that, you know, our commitment to push back against Iran’s support for terrorism, militancy, and the threats that they engage in against our people in the region or elsewhere, are not linked to wherever we end up on the nuclear deal.
So, there's the nuclear diplomacy lane. You know, the President is very -- pretty clear, the administration has been pretty clear that in the event that Iran moves back into compliance with the JCPOA, that's in our interest, because it pushes Iran further away from a nuclear weapons capability. But whether the JCPOA is reborn or not, it actually has nothing to do with our willingness and resolve to defend ourselves. And I think the strike last night was a pretty clear communication to the Iranians, that these things are on different tracks.
CENTCOM Statement Regarding Precision Strikes in Syria
Attributable to Colonel Joe Buccino, USCENTCOM Communication Director:
“At President Biden’s direction, U.S. military forces conducted precision airstrikes in Deir ez-Zor Syria today. These precision strikes are intended to defend and protect U.S. forces from attacks like the ones on August 15 against U.S. personnel by Iran-backed groups. The U.S. strikes targeted infrastructure facilities used by groups affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
“Today’s strikes were necessary to protect and defend U.S. personnel. The United States took proportionate, deliberate action intended to limit the risk of escalation and minimize the risk of casualties.
“The President gave the direction for these strikes pursuant to his Article II authority to protect and defend U.S. personnel by disrupting or deterring attacks by Iran-backed groups.
“The United States does not seek conflict, but will continue to take necessary measures to protect and defend our people.
“U.S. forces remain in Syria to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS.”
Operation Inherent Resolve Statement on Green Village Attack
According to Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve officials, multiple rounds of indirect fire landed in the vicinity of Green Village in northeastern Syria shortly after 9 p.m. Aug. 15, 2022, in the latest attempted attack on Coalition forces and our partners.
The rockets endangered the civilian population in the area and its infrastructure. Several rockets failed to launch and were recovered by Coalition Forces and their Syrian Democratic Forces partners before they could pose an additional threat to the local population.
“Thankfully on this occasion, there were no casualties and no damage reported. However, attacks like this risk both the lives of innocent civilians and important infrastructure due to their indiscriminate nature,” said Maj. Gen. John Brennan, the CJTF-OIR commander.
Earlier this year on Jan 5, 2022, Coalition forces at Green Village were attacked by Iranian-backed malign actors with 8 rockets that resulted in minor damage to the base and to a mosque nearby.
Brennan stressed that this cowardly and unsuccessful attack would not distract the Coalition or its partners from their mission.
“The Coalition is proud to be a reliable partner in the efforts to maintain the lasting defeat of ISIS, and our commitment is unwavering despite these reckless actions by those responsible.”
Operation Inherent Resolve Statement on al Tanf Garrison Attack
Operation Inherent Resolve leaders condemned the Aug. 15 attempted UAS attack in the vicinity of al-Tanf Garrison and praised the effective response by Coalition personnel and partners that rendered the attack futile.
Thanks to the robust counter measures in place to protect the Coalition Forces and the Maghaweir al-Thowra partner forces, the UAS attack resulted in zero casualties and no damage.
“We have confidence in our ability to protect our troops and Coalition partners from attacks from the air,” said Col. Joe Buccino, the director of public affairs for United States Central Command. “Our countermeasures are effective.”
Maj. Gen. John Brennan, the commander of Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve, reiterated his earlier condemnation of those seeking to derail the lasting defeat of ISIS and put innocent lives at risk, and he praised the swift and effective actions by Coalition and MaT forces.
“Such indiscriminate actions highlight a complete disregard for innocent lives and they undermine the effort to maintain the lasting defeat of ISIS,” Brennan said. “We will not hesitate to use our right to defend ourselves; and this was clearly demonstrated by our coordinated actions this morning. We will continue to take appropriate measures to protect our forces.”
Brennan further emphasized that the unsuccessful attack would not deter the Coalition or the MaT from the firm commitment to deny an ISIS resurgence. He emphasized that CJTF-OIR will continue to work with its partners to counter threats while furthering efforts to ensure regional stability.
“This reflects the strength of partnership and commitment, traits that are not possessed by those who would seek to re-open the door to ISIS.”
January 5: An Iran-backed militia fired eight rockets at the Green Village in northeast Syria. The rockets caused minor damage to the base, but no casualties were reported “The Iran-backed malign actors fired on the Coalition from within civilian infrastructure with no regard for civilian safety.” U.S. Central Command said in a statement. Coalition and SDF forces responded by firing six rounds of artillery.
May 17: Iran-backed forces attacked Patrol Base Shaddadi, according to Operational Inherent Resolve, which did not publicize details.
July 26: Four rockets were fired near Patrol Base Shaddadi, a base hosting U.S. forces in northeastern Syria. No casualties or damage were reported. "The attempted strikes were ineffective and landed well outside the Coalition base. Our Syrian Democratic Partners quickly responded to the incident and have the lead for any further response” a senior coalition official reportedly said. No group claimed responsibility.
August 15: Two drones approached the al Tanf Garrison, a remote outpost in southern Syria. Coalition forces intercepted one drone, but a second one detonated in a compound used by Maghaweir al Thowra, a U.S.-backed Syrian opposition group. No casualties or damage were reported, Operational Inherent Resolve said in a statement. The Pentagon later said the drones, produced in Iran, were launched from Babil, Iraq by Iran-backed groups.
In a separate incident, militants fired rockets at the Green Village. “Thankfully on this occasion, there were no casualties and no damage reported. However, attacks like this risk both the lives of innocent civilians and important infrastructure due to their indiscriminate nature,” Maj. Gen. John Brennan, the commander of Operation Inherent Resolve, said.
U.S. Central Command later attributed both attacks to Iran-backed groups. “Such attacks put the lives of innocent Syrian civilians at risk and undermine the significant efforts by our Partner Forces to maintain the lasting defeat of ISIS,” Brennan said. “Coalition personnel retain the right to self-defense, and we will take appropriate measures to protect our forces.”
August 23: U.S. warplanes struck nine bunkers in eastern Deir Ezzor province. The targets had reportedly been used for ammunition storage and logistics support by Iran-backed groups. A Britain-based monitor said that at least six militants were killed. The airstrikes were in response to attacks on U.S and partner forces on August 15. The United States does not want Iran to “draw the wrong conclusion that they can continue just doing this and get away with it,” said Colin Kahl, under secretary of defense for policy.
August 24-25: Iran-backed militants fired rockets at two bases in northeastern Syria, Conoco and the Green Village. Three U.S. troops were injured.
In response, U.S. forces used helicopters, gunships and artillery to destroy three vehicles and rocket launchers used in the previous attack. Two or three militants were killed, according to the Pentagon. U.S. warplanes and artillery later fired on militants preparing to launch rockets. One additional militant was killed.
Garrett Nada is the managing editor of The Iran Primer at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
Research assistants Katelyn Balke and James Motamed contributed to the timeline.