© Reuters. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin attends a welcoming ceremony before an annual security meeting with South Korean Defense Minister Shin Won-sik at the Defense Ministry in Seoul, South Korea, November 13 2023. JUNG YEON-JE/Pool via REUTERS
By Phil Stewart and Hyunsu Yim
SEOUL (Reuters) – U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin left open on Monday the possibility of further strikes against Iran-linked groups if attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria do not stop, hours after nighttime US airstrikes in Syria.
The U.S. military carried out its third airstrike in as many weeks in Syria on Sunday evening, targeting a training center near the town of Albu Kamal and a safe haven near the town of Mayadeen.
The strikes follow at least 40 attacks against U.S. and coalition troops in Iraq and Syria by Iranian-backed forces in recent weeks, as regional tensions rise over the war between Israel and Hamas. At least 45 American soldiers suffered head trauma or minor injuries.
“These attacks must stop, and if they do not stop, then we will not hesitate to once again do what is necessary to protect the troops,” Austin told reporters at a news conference in Seoul.
Austin said the latest airstrikes in eastern Syria targeted facilities used by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and related groups.
“These strikes are intended to disrupt and degrade the freedom of action of these groups, which are directly responsible for attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria,” Austin said.
The United States has 900 troops in Syria and another 2,500 in neighboring Iraq to advise and assist local forces trying to prevent a resurgence of the Islamic State, which in 2014 seized large swaths of the country. two countries but was later defeated.
There are growing fears that the conflict between Israel and Hamas could spill over into the Middle East and turn U.S. troops stationed in isolated bases into targets for weapons heavier than the small rockets and one-way drones seen until now. now.
The United States has deployed additional air defenses and sent warships and fighter jets to the region since the conflict between Israel and Hamas began on October 7, including two aircraft carriers, to try to deter the Iran and groups supported by Iran.
The number of troops added to the region is in the thousands.
Reuters reported that the U.S. military was taking new steps to protect its forces in the Middle East during intensifying attacks by suspected Iran-backed groups, and leaving open the possibility of evacuating military families if necessary.
The measures include increasing U.S. military patrols, restricting access to base facilities and strengthening intelligence collection, including through drones and other surveillance operations, according to officials.
It remains unclear whether anyone was killed in the latest US strikes in Syria. A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said a U.S. review was underway.