US strikes Iranian militants in Iraq and Syria in response to deadly drone attack in Jordan

Last updated on February 2, 2024

The U.S began conducting airstrikes on Iranian militants in Iraq and Syria on Friday, the first of what officials expect to be multiple rounds of retaliatory actions following the deaths of three U.S. soldiers in Jordan this week.

U.S. bomber aircraft struck more than 85 targets connected to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force and “affiliated militia groups,” the U.S. military said in a statement. The Quds Force is Iran’s primary unit charged with conducting covert operations outside Iran.

By striking the Quds Force, Biden is ratcheting up the intensity of America’s response to missile and drone attacks by militants in the region, which so far has been limited to aerial assaults on proxy forces in Iraq, Syria and Yemen — not on members within Iran’s military.

“The airstrikes employed more than 125 precision munitions,” the statement said. “The facilities that were struck included command and control operations, centers, intelligence centers, rockets, and missiles, and unmanned aired 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.”

A Defense Department official said long-range B-1B Lancer bombers were used in the strike.

President Joe Biden ordered the strikes in response to the deadly Iran-backed attack on U.S. forces at Tower 22, a small outpost in northeast Jordan, last Sunday, which the administration attributed to the umbrella group the Islamic Resistance in Iraq.

The Quds Force is one of five branches of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is attached to the Iranian military that former President Donald Trump designated a terrorist organization in 2019. The Quds Force was created during the Iran-Iraq war as a special intelligence unit, and is known for training and equipping Islamic revolutionary groups throughout the Middle East.

The Quds Force, which reports directly to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, trained Iraqi militias in the use of roadside bombs during the Iraq War, which killed hundreds of American troops.

Trump ordered the assassination of Quds Force leader, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, in a January 2020 drone strike, after a similar cycle of escalation between Washington and Tehran.

The decision was made to wait until after the dignified transfer of the three U.S. soldiers was completed before the retaliatory strikes began, according to a senior administration official, who like others was granted anonymity to speak about internal discussions.

Biden and first lady Jill Biden greeted the remains of the three soldiers in a solemn ceremony at Dover Air Force Base early Friday afternoon. The Bidens then returned to their Wilmington, Delaware, home just minutes before the first explosions in the Middle East were reported.

Biden vowed to respond forcefully to the soldiers’ deaths, the first in the most recent conflict with Iranian proxies that has seen more than 160 attacks on U.S. troops in the Middle East since October. But with Friday’s strikes, Biden risks becoming even more embroiled in an escalating regional conflict that may draw in Iran.

In weighing his response to the Sunday drone attack, the president has had to walk a difficult tightrope: hit back strongly to the attacks and risk a war with Tehran; or act with restraint and risk emboldening the militants and looking weak on the world stage in an election year. Neither is guaranteed to stop the cycle of escalation between the U.S. military and Iran-backed proxies that began after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks on Israel.

Indeed, the Yemen-based Houthis, which launched a campaign against commercial shipping in the Red Sea in response to Israel’s operations in Gaza, continued attacking vessels in the region’s waters almost every day this week. In one instance, the destroyer USS Gravely shot down a Houthi cruise missile that
reportedly came within a mile of the ship.

The U.S. responded multiple times last week, destroying a Houthi surface-to-air missile, and in a separate strike a ground control station and 10 drones, according to U.S. Central Command.

There were some signs other Iranian proxies might be scaling back in the wake of the deadly Jordan attack, however. The militant group Kataib Hezbollah, which the U.S. has blamed for multiple attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria, this week issued a statement
saying it would suspend its operations against U.S. forces
. However, Pentagon spokesperson Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder responded that: “Actions speak louder than words.”

Biden on Tuesday indicated he had decided on a response to Sunday’s deadly attack. But Friday’s actions may be the first of several rounds of military strikes. John Kirby, spokesperson for the National Security Council, said last week that the administration’s response would be “tiered.”