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Biden launched airstrikes against Iran-backed militias in Syria to “send a message”

President Joe Biden speaks before signing an Executive Order on the economy at the White House on February 24. The next day the US military bombed Syria. | Doug Mills/Pool/Getty Images

It’s the first known military action of Joe Biden’s presidency.

President Joe Biden on Thursday launched military airstrikes against two Iranian-backed militias in Syria, in retaliation for a rocket attack in Iraq last week that injured US troops and killed a Filipino contractor.

In the strike, Biden’s first known military action since taking office, the US hit a facility used by the groups Kata’ib Hezbollah and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada to smuggle weapons. As of now it’s unclear if anyone was hurt or killed, though US officials expect about “a handful of people” may have died, the Washington Post reported.

A US official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to speak freely about sensitive discussions, told me the administration’s thinking behind the airstrikes was that they needed to “send a message that the US will not turn a blind eye to attacks on our forces by Iranian-sponsored militias.”

Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said the president ordered the “proportionate military response” to send “an unambiguous message: President Biden will act to protect American and Coalition personnel. At the same time, we have acted in a deliberate manner that aims to de-escalate the overall situation in both eastern Syria and Iraq.”

The strikes occurred around 6 pm Eastern time, though the retaliation had been planned over several days, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Some experts are already applauding the president’s decision.

“This was a golden move by the Biden administration,” said Phillip Smyth, an expert on Shi’a militias at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, because it let Tehran know the new American team is willing to strike Iranian-linked targets wherever they operate throughout the Middle East. “This is the administration saying ‘we mean business.’”

It was also a way of sending that message without angering Iraq, Smyth added, which bristled at US airstrikes on Iranian proxies in Iraq during the Trump administration, seeing them as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty. Targeting a weapons facility in Syria avoids that problem.

The question now is what the retaliatory attack might mean for the Biden administration’s effort to reenter the Iran nuclear deal. Washington agreed to join an informal meeting with Iran brokered the European Union, but Tehran said it was still “considering” the offer. It’s possible that the regime might balk at future talks after Biden’s action.

Even so, it seems Biden calculated that protecting US troops operating in the Middle East from attacks by Iranian proxies takes priority over that diplomatic process. In so doing, he became the latest president to order a military operation in the Middle East.

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