US air strikes in Syria kill eleven after death of American contractor in drone attack

President Joe Biden authorises 'retaliatory strikes' near Hasakah

US and Syrian Democratic Forces during military exercises in the countryside of Deir Ezzor in north-east Syria. AFP
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Eleven people were reportedly killed as the US conducted “precision air strikes” in eastern Syria after the death of an American contractor in a drone attack on a US coalition base near Hasakah in north-east Syria on Thursday.

The US Central Command forces conducted air strikes against facilities used by groups affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, in response to the drone strike.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 11 people were killed in the US attack, including two Syrians.

"US strikes targeted a weapons depot inside Deir Ezzor city, killing six pro-Iran fighters, and two other fighters were killed by strikes targeting the desert of Al Mayadeen, and three others near Albu Kamal," said the UK-based watchdog, which has a wide network of sources on the ground in Syria.

The unmanned aerial vehicle that killed the contractor had hit a coalition maintenance plant, the Pentagon said.

"My heart and deepest condolences to the family of American we lost and wish the speedy recovery for those who are wounded," US President Joe Biden said on Friday.

"Make no mistake, the United States does not, does not, I emphasise, seek conflict with Iran. But be prepared for us to act forcefully to protect our people."

The intelligence community assessed the drone to be of Iranian origin, the Pentagon added.

“The air strikes were conducted in response to today’s attack as well as a series of recent attacks against coalition forces in Syria by groups affiliated with the IRGC,” said Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin.

The department said the strikes were “intended to protect and defend US personnel”.

“The United States took proportionate and deliberate action intended to limit the risk of escalation and minimise casualties,” it said.

Mr Austin said he authorised the retaliatory strikes at the direction of Mr Biden.

“As President Biden has made clear, we will take all necessary measures to defend our people and will always respond at a time and place of our choosing,” he said.

“No group will strike our troops with impunity.”

Two of the wounded service members were treated on site, while three others and the US contractor were taken to coalition medical facilities in Iraq, the department said.

The US confirmed reports of another attack on a base in north-east Syria on Friday following its retaliatory air strikes but said there were no casualties.

"It is not uncommon, when we take a retaliatory strike like this, for them to answer right back with some ineffective rocket fire — and these were largely, completely ineffective," National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said.

"Nobody was hurt, no US casualties at all."

'Necessary measures' to defend people

Centcom said Thursday's drone attack “was another in a series of attacks on our troops and partner forces”.

“This evening, we responded to an attack on our forces that killed an American contractor and wounded our troops and another American contractor by striking facilities used by groups affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps,” Centcom said.

“Our troops remain in Syria to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS, which benefits the security and stability of not only Syria, but the entire region.”

Overnight, social media users posted videos showing explosions said to have taken place in Syria’s Deir Ezzor, a strategic province that borders Iraq and contains oilfields.

Iran-backed militia groups and Syrian forces control the area, which has been hit by suspected Israeli air strikes in recent months, allegedly targeting Iranian supply routes.

The US deploys about 900 troops in bases and posts across north-eastern Syria as part of the international coalition fighting remnants of ISIS.

American troops also support the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Kurds' de facto army in the area, which led the battle that dislodged ISIS from the last scraps of their Syrian territory in 2019.

The US personnel have frequently been targeted in attacks by militia groups.

Updated: March 24, 2023, 9:48 PM