Comments: U.S. on Strikes in Syria and Iraq

On Feb. 2, 2024, the United States launched airstrikes on more than 85 targets in seven facilities – four in Syria and three in Iraq. The Pentagon reported that the sites included command and control operations centers, intelligence centers, rockets, and missiles, and drone and munition storage sites of militia groups and their allies in Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. On February 7, a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad killed a Kataib Hezbollah commander who had planned and participated in attacks on Americans, the Pentagon said. Kataib Hezbollah is an Iraqi Shiite militia that has received weapons, training and funding from Iran. The U.S. strikes were retribution for the January 28 drone strike that killed three American soldiers based at an outpost in northern Jordan that abuts the borders of Iraq and Syria. 

The Pentagon specified that the targets had facilitated more than 160 attacks against U.S. in Syria and Iraq between the outbreak of war between Hamas and Israel on Oct. 7, 2023 and the end of January 2024. The White House said the attacks were only the first step in U.S. retaliation. John Kirby, the National Security Council strategic coordinator, said that the message was “stop the attacks” on U.S. forces.

The strikes were carried out by B-1 bombers flown long distances in so-called gas-and-go flights from bases in the United States. The delay in the reprisal attacks after the deaths of three Americans was due in part due to poor weather and to avoid civilian casualties, the Pentagon told reporters. The following are the initial comments by U.S. officials.


President Biden

Feb. 2, 2024: “This past Sunday, three American soldiers were killed in Jordan by a drone launched by militant groups backed by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Earlier today, I attended the dignified return of these brave Americans at Dover Airforce Base, and I have spoken with each of their families.

“This afternoon, at my direction, U.S. military forces struck targets at facilities in Iraq and Syria that the IRGC and affiliated militia use to attack U.S. forces.

“Our response began today. It will continue at times and places of our choosing.

“The United States does not seek conflict in the Middle East or anywhere else in the world. But let all those who might seek to do us harm know this: If you harm an American, we will respond.”


Central Command

Feb. 2, 2024: At 4:00 p.m. (EST) Feb. 02, U.S. Central Command forces conducted airstrikes in Iraq and Syria against Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force and affiliated militia groups. U.S. military forces struck more than 85 targets, with numerous aircraft to include long-range bombers flown from United States. The airstrikes employed more than 125 precision munitions.

The facilities that were struck included command and control operations centers, intelligence centers, rockets, and missiles, and unmanned aerial vehicle storages, and logistics and munition supply chain facilities of militia groups and their IRGC sponsors who facilitated attacks against U.S. and Coalition forces.


Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III

AustinFeb. 2, 2024: “Following the attack on U.S. and Coalition Forces in northeastern Jordan this past Sunday that killed three U.S. service members, at President Biden's direction, U.S. military forces today conducted strikes on seven facilities, which included more than 85 targets in Iraq and Syria, that Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and affiliated militias use to attack U.S. forces.

“This is the start of our response. The President has directed additional actions to hold the IRGC and affiliated militias accountable for their attacks on U.S. and Coalition Forces. These will unfold at times and places of our choosing. We do not seek conflict in the Middle East or anywhere else, but the President and I will not tolerate attacks on American forces. We will take all necessary actions to defend the United States, our forces, and our interests.”


National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan

On CNN “State of the Union” on Feb. 4, 2024:
DANA BASH: Let's start with the retaliatory strikes in Iraq and Syria. Were any Iranian Revolutionary Guard leaders killed during those strikes?

SULLIVAN: As you said, the president ordered strikes in Iraq in response to the tragic death of three brave service members. Those strikes were carried out Friday night, to good effect. And we are still assessing the battle damage. Our CENTCOM, Central Command, is looking at the capabilities we have reduced and the casualties that were incurred.

So I don't have anything to share with you today on precisely who was taken out in those strikes, but I would just say that the president was clear when he ordered them and when he conducted them that that was the beginning of our response and there will be more steps to come.

BASH: How do you define success then?

SULLIVAN: Well, we're going to continue as we have to take action when Americans are attacked. When we're attacked in Iraq and Syria, we will respond.

And, from our perspective, each action that we take is targeted at reducing the capabilities of the militias to be able to continue to conduct attacks against us and to send a clear message that the United States will respond when our forces are attacked, and we will respond with strength in a sustained way when American casualties are incurred.

BASH: OK, I hear what you're saying about the goals, but is there anything more you can tell the American people, who are looking to the administration to not just avenge the death of three soldiers, but also concerned about the region in general, about whether or not what happened was successful and how it was successful, who got hit, who got killed, what got taken out?

SULLIVAN: Well, first of all, Dana, the president has approached this with a straightforward principle, which is that the United States will step up and respond when our forces are attacked and the United States also is not looking for a wider war in the Middle East.

We are not looking to take the United States to war. So we are going to continue to pursue a policy that goes down both of those lines simultaneously, that responds with force and clarity, as we did on Friday night, but also that continues to hew to an approach that does not get the United States pulled into a war that we have seen too frequently in the Middle East.

Past presidents have had to deal with a significant number of American casualties and American deaths in the Middle East because of war. This president is looking to defend our interests and to defend our troops. That's what he's going to continue to do going forward.

BASH: You said it's just the beginning. And I just want to clarify. That means that there will be more strikes coming in the next few days?

SULLIVAN: What it means is that we will take further action. I'm not going to, obviously, describe the character of that action because I don't want to telegraph our punches. But there will be further action.

BASH: Inside Iran? Would you rule that out at this point?

SULLIVAN: Look, sitting on a national TV program, I'm not going to rule in and rule out any activity anywhere. What I am going to say is that the president will do what he thinks needs to be done and again reinforce the point that he's going to defend our forces and also that he is not looking to get into a war.

BASH: Well, he's not, but how worried are you that Iran, Iranian- backed forces may retaliate again against U.S. forces? And if that happens, what would the consequences be?

SULLIVAN: That's a risk. That's always a risk. And we have seen that in the past. We have seen that in this administration. We have seen that in the previous administration, where the U.S. has taken action and the militia groups have responded. So we are prepared for those contingencies.

And the president's basic principle, as I have said now a few times on this program, remains consistent, which is, if we see more attacks, you will see more responses.

BASH: On that, the criticism that we're hearing more and more from mostly Republicans is that this never should have gotten to this place in the first place, because there have been more than 150 attacks on U.S. troops since October. And what they say is that the U.S., the Biden administration, should have retaliated sooner, before U.S. service members were killed. Do they have a point?

SULLIVAN: Well, first of all, Dana, as you know very well, we have responded multiple times before the tragic events of a few days ago. We have struck targets in both Iraq and Syria. We have gone against IRGC and militia-linked facilities in both Iraq and Syria. We have taken out a militia leader in Iraq. So, the notion that we have not responded is just incorrect.

The second point I would make is that I didn't hear these same voices, which to me sound mostly like political voices, saying that when American service members were tragically killed by these same militias in the previous administration.

This is a challenging, difficult issue. It has been for every president over the past 20 years. And every president has sought to defend American forces. This president is doing so with the advice of his military commanders, and he has ordered multiple rounds of military action in response to attacks by these militia groups.

BASH: Jake, you have said now a couple of times on the show, and you have said it many times before, that the administration is trying to prevent this from spreading into a regional conflict. But if we take a step back, just yesterday, the U.S. and U.K. responded to Houthi rebels in Yemen. They're engaging in routine attacks on shipping in the Red Sea. There are near-daily strikes between Israel and Hezbollah, and much of this is rooted in the war between Israel and Hamas. My colleague Peter Bergen smartly pointed out that this conflict involves 10 countries, at least, four major terrorist groups. So isn't this already a regional conflict?

SULLIVAN: Well, Dana, what I would say is that these are distinct, but related challenges.

For example, what's happening in the Red Sea is obviously, to a certain extent, triggered by what's happening in Gaza, but it's not the same thing. The Houthis aren't just hitting ships related to Israel. They're hitting a lot of different ships from a lot of different countries, and so we are trying to deal with the challenge to freedom of navigation in the Red Sea. That is a distinct challenge.

The forces in -- the militia groups in Iraq and Syria are hitting our forces. We're responding. And then, of course, Israel is dealing both with the challenge of Hamas in Gaza and the threat from Hezbollah in the north. So we will continue to work to deal with the challenge of escalation and continue to work to ensure we're responding forcefully, but at the same time staying out of the prospect of the United States getting pulled into a broad war in the Middle East of the kind that we have seen in the past.

BASH: I just want to push back a little bit, because you just mentioned all of those conflicts as if they are independent. You know better than I they all lead to one road -- down one road, and that is the road to Iran. Iran is, by U.S. intelligence standards and what you all have said publicly, responsible for funding at least a lot of what is going on there.

SULLIVAN: That's absolutely the case. In fact, I have sat on this program previously, I have stood at the podium and explained the relationship between Iran and the Houthis, Iran and the Shia militia groups, Iran and Hezbollah, Iran and Hamas. So we make no bones about that.

Iran has a significant and pernicious responsibility for much of the instability in the Middle East, and that has to be factored into how we approach everything that we're doing and how Israel has to approach everything it's doing.

On NBC “Meet the Press” on Feb. 4, 2024:
KRISTEN WELKER: So, the United States has now launched two rounds of retaliatory strikes. Is the stated goal of deterrence against these Iranian-backed groups being accomplished? And do you have an accounting of how many people have been killed so far?

SULLIVAN: So, the President has been very clear from the beginning: which is that when American forces are attacked, we will respond. And we've responded several times over the course of the past few months. And then when three Americans were tragically killed, the president ordered firm and serious response, which we are now – which is now underway. It began with the strikes on Friday night, but that is not the end of it. We intend to take additional strikes and additional action to continue to send a clear message that the United States will respond when our forces are attacked or our people are killed. At this point, we are still assessing the question of how many casualties there were among the militia groups. And our military will continue to provide the president with those assessments. We do believe that the strikes had good effect in degrading the capabilities of these militia groups to attack us. And we do believe that, as we continue, we will be able to continue to send a strong message about the United States' firm resolve to respond when our forces are attacked.

WELKER: Do you know if any civilians were killed? Do you know if any militant leaders were killed?

SULLIVAN: We do not have, at this time, any confirmation of any civilian casualties. Our military is still looking at that. What we do know is that the targets we hit were absolutely valid targets from the point of view of containing the weaponry and the personnel that were attacking American forces. So, we are confident in the targets that we struck, and I will defer to a final analysis, the question of who was taken out among militant leaders.

WELKER: Let me ask you about the reaction to these strikes. The House speaker, who I'm going to interview momentarily, said in a statement, quote, "Unfortunately, the administration waited for a week and telegraphed to the world, including to Iran, the nature of our response. The public hand-wringing and excessive signaling undercuts our ability to put a decisive end to the barrage of attacks endured over the past few months." What is your response to the House speaker?

SULLIVAN: Well, I find it somewhat strange. The president made clear before we were attacked at Tower 22 in Jordan, before our brave service members were tragically killed, that if we were attacked, we would respond. So, Iran and its militia groups knew that the United States was going to respond. We also said we'd do it at a time and place of our choosing. We planned the attack. We executed the attack. We hit where we wanted to hit, when we wanted to hit it. And that was at the military advice of the president's commanders, and he gave them the order to go ahead and do it. And we think that those strikes had good effects. So, of course, there will always be armchair quarterbacks, but we are confident in the steps that we have taken so far. And we are confident in the course that we are on going forward.

WELKER: Is the United States already in a wider war in the Middle East, Jake?

SULLIVAN: What the United States is doing is responding to threats as we see them with significant but proportionate force.

WELKER: Has the war expanded in the region, Jake?

SULLIVAN: Well, first: we don't accept that what's happening in the Red Sea, for example Kristen, is entirely tied to the war in Gaza, because the Houthis are attacking shipping that has absolutely nothing to do with Israel. So, there are connections among these things, to be sure. But these are distinct threats, as well, that we need to deal with on their own basis. So, in the Red Sea, we need to deal with the threat to commercial shipping and we are doing so with a coalition of countries. In Iraq and Syria, we need to deal with threats to our troops and we are doing so including with the strikes the president ordered Friday night.

WELKER: Well, you mentioned Iraq and Syria. Let me ask you, how do you respond to Iran's foreign minister calling this a strategic mistake that will destabilize the region? Is the United States bracing for a counterattack?

SULLIVAN: Well, I'm not a bit surprised that Iran didn't like the strikes that we took on Friday night. So, that would be par for the course. We are prepared to deal with anything that any group or any country tries to come at us with. And the President has been clear that we will continue to respond to threats that American forces face as we go forward.

WELKER: Have you ruled out strikes inside Iran?

SULLIVAN: Well, sitting here today on a national news program, I'm not going to get into what we've ruled in and ruled out from the point of view of military action. What I will say is that the president is determined to respond forcefully to attacks on our people. The president also is not looking for a wider war in the Middle East.


On ABC “This Week” on Feb. 4, 2024:
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Just start out, what have our strikes achieved over the last couple of days? Is the retaliation done?

SULLIVAN: Well, George, part of the purpose of the strikes, the central purpose of the strikes, has been to take away capabilities from the Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria that are attacking or forces and from the Houthis that continue to threaten Red Sea shipping. And we believe they had good effect in reducing, degrading the capabilities of the militias and of the Houthis. And, as necessary, we will continue to take action.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And so do you expect more retaliation for the strike against U.S. forces in Jordan earlier this week?

SULLIVAN: Well, the first thing that I would say, and you noted it at the top of your program, is that this was the beginning of a – of our response. There will be more steps. Some of those steps will be seen. Some may not be seen. But there will be more action taken to respond to the death of the – the tragic death of the three brave U.S. service members.

And we cannot rule out that there will be future attacks from Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria or from the Houthis. We have to be clear-eyed about that. And the president, in being clear-eyed about that, has told his military commanders that they need to be positioned to respond to further attacks as well.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Are you concerned about direct escalation from the Iranians themselves?

SULLIVAN: Well, again, this is something that we have to look at as a threat. We have to prepare for every contingency. And we were prepared for that contingency. And I would just say, from the perspective of Tehran, if they chose to respond directly to the United States, they would be met with a swift and forceful response from us.

STEPHANOPOULOS: How – how much direct contact has there been with Iran to try to contain this conflict?

SULLIVAN: Over the course of the past few months, we’ve had the opportunity to engage in the passage of messages back and forth between the U.S. and Iran. But, in the last few days, the message that we have sent to Iran has been through our action, not through our words.

On CBS “Face the Nation” on Feb. 4, 2024:
MARGARET BRENNAN: The White House described Friday's response as a multi-tiered plan, not one and done. Is this an open ended military campaign and how are you going to define success?

SULLIVAN: Well, it's true, Margaret, that what happened on Friday was the beginning, not the end of our response, and that there will be more steps, some seen, some perhaps unseen, all in an effort to send a very clear message that when American forces are attacked, when Americans are killed as three service members, tragically were at Tower 22, we will respond and we will respond forcefully. And we will respond in a sustained way. I would not describe it as some open ended military campaign. We have a concept of how we intend to respond. I'm not going to telegraph it on the show. But we will execute that concept with the kind of professionalism that only the US military can bring to bear.  

BRENNAN: So the U.S. officially has not assessed that Tehran directed the attack, but has Tehran done anything to rein in the militias that they fund and arm?

SULLIVAN: Well, we know that Iran is behind these militia groups, they train them, they fund them, they arm them, as your question suggests. And they do have influence with them. And I can't sit here today and tell you that Tehran has shifted its policy. What I can tell you is what the United States' approach is going to be, which is that if we continue to see threats and attacks from these militia groups, we will respond to them. And we will hold those responsible accountable.

BRENNAN: There are reportedly civilian casualties in Iraq and in Syria as a result of these strikes. Does the US assess that any of those hit in these strikes were actually Iranian Al Quds Force personnel? Or did the fact that this was so telegraphed in advance, give those personnel time to go to ground?

SULLIVAN: Well, first of all, Margaret, on the telegraphed point, President Biden has been saying for months that he would respond to attacks, we have responded to previous attacks, and when three service members were killed, of course, Iran knew that the United States would respond. So the idea that somehow this was telegraphed, I think is a bit more of a political talking point than- than a reality. Secondly, the targets that we hit, we believe with conviction, were valid military targets. They were ammunition depots and command and control centers. They were the instruments that Iranian backed Shia militia groups were using to attack American forces. We are looking at the casualties, who precisely was killed. I don't have anything to report to you this morning publicly on that. But we will continue to make our assessments.


Secretary of State Antony Blinken

Feb. 6, 2024: "Attacks in Syria and Iraq, attacks on Israel from Lebanon, attacks on international shipping in the Red Sea, attacks in Jordan that killed three U.S. service members, and of course, the attack on Israel on October 7th. Each and every one carried out by groups trained, armed, funded, and formed by Iran.

"Iran and its proxies claim that they’re carrying out these attacks somehow on behalf of the Palestinian people. That is absolutely wrong and it’s a cover for their true intent.  Not a single one of these attacks has advanced the rights, the opportunities, the security, and the dignity of the Palestinians. They are all fundamentally about Iran’s quest for power."


White House Press Briefing Excerpts

Feb. 2, 2024
KIRBY: As you all no doubt know, today, in response to the continued attacks on our troops and facilities in Iraq and Syria, and in particular the attack that killed three of our soldiers in Jordan, wounding dozens of others, U.S. military forces struck more than 85 targets at seven facilities utilized by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the militant groups that they sponsor. Three of the facilities are in Iraq, four of them are in Syria.

Numerous aircraft, including B-1 bombers, dispatched from the United States were involved in this operation, firing more than 125 precision-guided munitions over the course of about 30 minutes.

Target facilities included command and control centers, as well as headquarters buildings and intelligence centers; rocket, missile, and drone storage facilities; and logistics ammunition supply chain facilities.

These targets were carefully selected to avoid civilian casualties and based on clear, irrefutable evidence that they were connected to attacks on U.S. personnel in the region.

The Department of Defense is in the early stages of battle damage assessment, but we believe that the strikes were successful. We do not know at this time if or how many militants may have been killed or wounded. All U.S. aircraft are now out of harm’s way. The President has been kept informed throughout the afternoon.

The United States does not seek conflict with Iran or in the broader Middle East. But as President Biden has made clear, we will not hesitate to defend our people and hold responsible all those who harm Americans, at a time and a place of our choosing. That began tonight, but it will not end tonight.

QUESTION: Why did you feel the need to use bombers that came all the way from the United States? You know, what were the facilities in Iraq? The Iraqis are also condemning this operation.

LIEUTENANT GENERAL SIMS: First of all, I would tell you the beauty of the American bomber is we can strike anywhere in the world at a time of our choosing. We’re not limited to just the aircraft that are in the Central Command, as was the case in this situation, and we’re able to employ those bombers from the United States. It also limits the requirement to have a number of forces forward. We can, again, conduct this from home turf, so to speak.

KIRBY: And on Iraq, we did inform the Iraqi government prior to the strikes occurring.

QUESTION: Was the B-1 meant to send a signal to Iran specifically, reminding Tehran that the U.S. is capable of striking high-value targets inside Iran, including its nuclear facilities? And why was it not — was it decided not to strike targets inside Iran?

LIEUTENANT GENERAL SIMS: Sir, we’re not trying to send a signal to anybody other than those who mean Americans harm. And in this case, we struck targets that got after exactly that. As we mentioned before, IRGC-related targets, targets that are holding locations for munitions that have been used against our men and women located in the region, as well as locations that have been providing command and control and intelligence collection in those strikes against Americans.

And the B-1 allowed us to do that, again, from the United States. It enables us to do so at a time that we choose and with a significant number of munitions.

KIRBY: We do not seek conflict with Iran. These targets were chosen, as we said, to degrade and disrupt the capabilities of the IRGC and the groups that they sponsor and support.

As the General said, we believe that these targets fell into exactly that criteria. And the goal here is to get these attacks to stop. We are not looking for a war with Iran.

Question: I’m hoping you can expand upon the signal you’re trying to send with these particular strikes to the IRGC and to Iran more broadly, and why you think this particular targeting avoids a wider Middle East conflict.

KIRBY: The signal is: The attacks have to stop. The attacks have to stop. And these targets were chosen because, as I said in my opening statement, all these facilities were connected to and being used by the IRGC and their proxy groups to conduct attacks on U.S. personnel in the region. Carefully chosen targets for that purpose.

So the signal is — to the IRGC and to these groups: The attacks have got to stop. This wasn’t just a message-sending routine tonight. This was about degrading capability; taking away, in a more robust way than we have in the past — taking away capabilities by the IRGC and the militant groups.

And I want to repeat, again, what I said in my opening comments: These responses began tonight; they’re not going to end tonight. So there will be additional responses. There will be additional action that we will take, all designed to put an end to these attacks and to take away capability by the IRGC.

And when you ask, “Well, how does this comport with not wanting a broader conflict?” — because if you’re taking away capability of an adversary who’s trying to kill your troops and act against your interests in the region, if you’re trying to take away their capability, then you are by default working to deescalate the tensions. And that’s the approach that we’re taking.

QUESTION: You were clear that weather was a big factor in the timing. Were there any other significant factors for the decision to start tonight?

LIEUTENANT GENERAL SIMS: In an interest of ensuring that we’re hitting all the right targets and that we’re avoiding unnecessary casualties, it’s good for us to have clear weather to allow us to see those targets as we develop them. That all came together for us as we were planning this. The weather did turn today to allow us to conduct these strikes. And as a result, we’re very confident in the targets that we struck today.

QUESTION: In addition to the signaling that you do by hitting 85 sites, there’s the conversations that have always taken place through backchannels with Iran. This week, we saw the Iranians send a few signals of their own. They didn’t want to have a direct conflict either. Was there any advanced messaging to them saying, “Look, you’re going to get hit because three people got killed, but we don’t want to escalate this” — something that would give them enough understanding to get their people out of the way and that they were going to lose some facilities, but that if they calmed it down, this would be the end of it?

KIRBY: There’s been no communications with Iran since the attack that killed our three soldiers in Jordan.