U.S. Military 'Under Multiple Rocket Attack' in Syria after Strikes, Fires Back

U.S. forces in Syria came under attack by multiple launch rocket systems in the wake of a series of airstrikes targeting suspected Iran-backed militias along the country's border with Syria, prompting troops to return fire.

"At approx. 7:44 PM local time, U.S. Forces in Syria were attacked by multiple rockets," U.S.-led coalition spokesperson Army Colonel Wayne Marotto said in an initial statement Monday. "There are no injuries and damage is being assessed. We will provide updates when we have more information."

In a follow-up message, he said the U.S. military had retaliated.

"Update: U.S. Forces in Syria, while under multiple rocket attack, acted in self- defense and conducted counter-battery artillery fire at rocket launching positions," Marotto said.

Both statements were confirmed to Newsweek by the U.S.-led coalition.

The exchange comes a day after the Pentagon conducted what Press Secretary John Kirby called "defensive precision air strikes against facilities used by Iran-backed militia groups in the Iraq-Syria border region."

"The targets were selected because these facilities are utilized by Iran-backed militias that are engaged in unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) attacks against U.S. personnel and facilities in Iraq," Kirby said. "Specifically, the U.S. strikes targeted operational and weapons storage facilities at two locations in Syria and one location in Iraq, both of which lie close to the border between those countries."

He identified two of the groups targeted as Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada, two Iraqi factions operation as part of the pro-Iran "Axis of Resistance." Kirby said the strikes demonstrated how Biden "has been clear that he will act to protect U.S. personnel."

"Given the ongoing series of attacks by Iran-backed groups targeting U.S. interests in Iraq, the President directed further military action to disrupt and deter such attacks," Kirby said. "We are in Iraq at the invitation of the Government of Iraq for the sole purpose of assisting the Iraqi Security Forces in their efforts to defeat ISIS. The United States took necessary, appropriate, and deliberate action designed to limit the risk of escalation—but also to send a clear and unambiguous deterrent message."

He argued that the U.S. was justified in taking action under international law "pursuant to its right of self-defense," and, on the domestic level, cited the White House's Article II authority granted in the wake of 9/11 to pursue designated terrorist organizations.

US, Army, fires, artillery, Syria, oil, field
U.S. Army soldiers assigned to the C/2-156th Infantry, 2nd Plt Charlie Battery/1-141 FA conduct crew training on a M777 Howitzer at the Conoco oil field in Syria on June 14. U.S. forces in Syria have supported the allied Syrian Democratic Forces retain control of key oil and gas resources despite protests from the country's government. Specialist Trevor Franklin/Combined Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve/U.S. Army

The Syrian Foreign Ministry condemned the recent airstrikes, which appeared to target the eastern areas of Al-Hury, Qasabat and As Sakik.

"The Syrian Arab Republic condemns the blatant U.S. aggression on the Syrian-Iraqi border region and considers it a flagrant violation of the sanctity of Syrian and Iraqi lands," the ministry said in a statement sent to Newsweek. "Syria renews its call to the U.S. administration to respect the unity of the land and people of Syria and Iraq and to stop these attacks on the independence of the two countries immediately."

The strikes were also condemned Monday by Iraq despite the partnership between the two countries.

"The Ministerial Council for National Security expressed its strong condemnation and censure of the American bombing that targeted a site on our border with Syria," according to a statement sent to Newsweek on Monday by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi's office, "stressing that this attack represents a flagrant violation of Iraqi sovereignty, which is rejected by all international laws and covenants."

The council stated that it "is studying resorting to all available legal options to prevent the recurrence of such attacks that violate Iraq's airspace and territory, in addition to conducting a comprehensive investigation into the circumstances of the accident and its causes, and working to prevent it from recurring in the future."

The council also "affirmed that the government has continuous sessions of dialogue with the American side, which have reached advanced stages and to the level of discussing the logistical details of the withdrawal of combat forces from Iraq, the details of which will be announced later."

The Iraqi Foreign Ministry also condemned the strikes in a statement sent to Newsweek, as did the Defense Ministry and military Security Media Cell in separate messages shared that same day.

Iraq's state-sponsored Popular Mobilization Forces, which include Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyed al-Shuhada, also lashed out against the strikes in a statement sent to Newsweek that identified four dead among their ranks.

Those killed, according to the organization, were were "performing their usual duty to prevent the infiltration of ISIS terrorist elements from Syria into Iraq as part of the official duty of the Popular Mobilization Forces under the Joint Operations Command," the combined war room of Iraqi and U.S.-led coalition forces. The slain fighters "were not involved in any activity against the foreign presence in Iraq, which the Popular Mobilization Authority had previously made clear its position repeatedly," the statement said.

The militia collective also denied that the targeted locations included sites involving weapons storage or transfer, and added a warning to the U.S.

"While denouncing and condemning in the strongest terms this heinous attack on our forces, we extend our sincere condolences and sincere sympathy to the families of the dear martyrs, and affirm that we reserve the legal right to respond to these attacks and hold the perpetrators accountable on Iraqi soil," the Popular Mobilization Forces said. "We stress that this attack comes within the framework of weakening Iraq, its security forces and the Popular Mobilization Forces that America and the rest of the world witnessed in defeating terrorism and removing its danger and evil from the whole world. It also serves to strengthen terrorist groups."

In Syria, the U.S. is considered an occupying force by the government, which is backed by both Iran and Russia in a decade-long civil war in which the U.S. once offered assistance to rebel forces. Since 2015, the U.S. has allied with a largely Kurdish force known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, whose main focus is the defeat of the Islamic State militant group (ISIS).

Attempts to reconcile the differences between the Syrian government and Syrian Democratic Forces have yet to produce results, however, and tensions remain, especially as local and regional groups supported by Iran also in the anti-ISIS fight maintain a presence near U.S. lines of control.

These U.S. positions are largely based near oil and gas fields, prompting further criticism from Damascus and its allies, who accused Washington of stealing the country's natural resources and violating its sovereignty. President Joe Biden, like his predecessors, has accused Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of mass human rights violations and has instituted strict sanctions to restrict economic ties with Damascus.

Despite differences in their view of Washington, Baghdad and Damascus maintain working relations that they have continued to improve, including a recent meeting held last week to improve bilateral trade. Both Arab countries have also remained in close contact with Iran despite U.S. sanctions against the Islamic Republic as well.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry too condemned the U.S. strikes in Iraq and Syria.

"Unfortunately, what we see is that the U.S. administration continues with the failed American policies in the region not only on the issue of sanctions, but also on regional policies," spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh told a press conference on Monday, urging Biden to allow people of the region to make their own decisions rather than resorting to "emotional behaviors, creating crisis, living in tension, and leaving troubles for the people of the region."

"What the U.S. is doing is upsetting security in the region," he added, "and it itself will be one of the victims of such insecurity."

On Monday, Assad received Iranian Foreign Minister for Special Political Affairs Ali Asghar Khaji for a meeting "that dealt with the strategic relations between the two countries, and the importance of the role played by the joint committees to enhance bilateral cooperation in all fields, especially at the economic level, to achieve the interests of the two friendly countries and peoples," according to a readout released by the Syrian Presidency.

While attacks launched by "Axis of Resistance" elements against U.S. forces are not unprecedented in Syria, they have most often occurred in Iraq. In February, Biden ordered a series of strikes against Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyed al-Shuhada in response to a rocket strike that killed a contractor and injured another, along with a U.S. soldier, in Iraq's northern city of Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region.

Following Sunday's strikes, Iraq's pro-"Axis of Resistance" Sabreen News outlet released footage purporting to show rockets targeting U.S. positions near the Al-Omar oil field in Deir Ezzor.

Amid concerns that escalations and tensions involving U.S. forces in the region could lead to war, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told a press briefing Monday that Biden administration's "objective is to deescalate, but the president is going to reserve the option of responding when there's a threat against U.S. interests."