The Mercury News

Conflict escalates after attack that killed U.S. contractor

- By Eric Schmitt

The conflict in northeast Syria escalated Friday as Iran-backed militias launched a volley of rocket and drone attacks against coalition bases after American reprisals for a drone attack that killed a U.S. contractor and injured six other Americans.

President Joe Biden, speaking at a news conference in Canada, sought to tamp down fears that titfor-tat strikes between the United States and militant groups could spiral out of control, while at the same time warning Iran to rein in its proxies.

“Make no mistake, the United States does not, does not, I emphasize, seek conflict with Iran,” Biden said in Ottawa, Ontario, where he was making a state visit. “But be prepared for us to act forcefully to protect our people. That's exactly what happened last night.”

The fighting, among the most serious in the area since 2019, threatens to upend recent efforts to de-escalate tensions across the wider Middle East, whose rival powers, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, have made steps toward rapprochem­ent in recent days after years of turmoil.

The initial attack Thursday came as U.S. forces in northeast Syria were on high alert following 78 attacks by Iran-backed militias since January 2021. But a self-destructin­g drone, which U.S. officials said was of “Iranian origin,” managed to hit a coalition base anyway, killing the U.S. contractor and wounding six other Americans.

After U.S. intelligen­ce analysts concluded that the drone was of Iranian origin — a claim the Pentagon made without any supporting evidence — the United States retaliated by launching airstrikes against militant sites linked to Iran's Revolution­ary Guard, Ryder said.

Two Air Force F-15E fighter jets hit a munition warehouse and a control building nearby, and an intelligen­ce-collection site in eastern Syria, two senior U.S. military officials said.

The U.S. airstrikes killed eight pro-Iran fighters, according to the Syrian Observator­y for Human Rights, a group in Britain that tracks the conflict. Ryder said the military was still investigat­ing reports of casualties on the ground.

“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,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Thursday.

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