BY DAVID BRENNAN
Russian officials have expressed outrage after President Joe Biden approved airstrikes on Iranian-backed Iraqi militia fighters in Syria, in retaliation for a militia rocket attack on American troops in Iraqi Kurdistan earlier this month.
The airstrikes close to the Iraq-Syria border killed at least 22 people, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and destroyed three ammunition trucks. Among those targeted were fighters from the Iran-aligned Iraqi Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada groups.
Russia and Iran are both allies of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and have been supporting the dictator in the country’s brutal decade-long civil war. Both countries have sent troops to support Assad’s forces, including a variety of Shi’ite militia groups from Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and elsewhere trained and armed by Iran.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters Friday that Moscow is “naturally closely monitoring the situation on the ground,” according to the state-run Tass news agency. “We are in permanent contact with Syrian colleagues,” he added.
But other officials were less restrained in their response to the airstrike, which Biden supporters have praised as a measured response to this month’s deadly rocket attack on the Erbil International Airport in Iraqi Kurdistan by an Iranian-backed Iraqi militia group.
Vladimir Dzhabarov, first deputy chairman of the upper-house Federation Council’s foreign affairs committee, told RBC that the U.S. strike was an effort by the White House to win public acclaim, rather than a justified military operation.
“The Americans need a small, minor, but victorious war far from American borders in order to divert the attention of their people from problems that have accumulated there,” Dzhabarov said.
Sergei Tsekov, a fellow member of the foreign affairs committee, told the RBC news website that the American operation was “extremely outrageous.”
Tsekov added: “Now, if someone struck a blow on U.S. territory, what would that look like? They strike at the territory of a sovereign republic without the consent of Syrian leadership.”
Rusia’s state-run RIA Novosti news agency spoke to an unnamed source inside the Foreign Ministry who condemned the American strike as “an unacceptable violation of international law.” The official added: “We need to figure out who they were targeting there.”
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow was warned about the airstrike just before it occurred.
Iranian leaders are yet to comment publicly on the American operation. Tehran has repeatedly denied any involvement in this month’s rocket attack in Erbil, as did the Kataib Hezbollah group. Iran and its militia allies in Iraq routinely attack U.S. and allied personnel and interests to apply pressure on the White House.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told reporters Thursday the Pentagon was confident the targets were linked to the Erbil attack. “There’s not much more that I’ll be able to add at this point other than the fact that we’re confident in the target we went after, we know what we hit,” he said.
“We’re confident that the target was being used by the same Shia militia that conducted the strikes,” Austin added. “We are very deliberative in our approach as you would expect us to be…We allowed and encouraged the Iraqis to investigate and develop intelligence for us, and that was very helpful to us in refining the target.”