Republican lawmakers are criticizing the Biden administration’s response to attacks on American forces by Iran-backed militias in Syria, following an escalation of fighting in the Mideast country.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin “needs to explain why he isn’t doing more to deter Iran,” said Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a hawkish conservative who has joined other Republicans in criticizing the administration’s response to an Iran-backed strike that killed an American contractor and wounded several U.S. soldiers in Syria last week.
Mr. Cotton’s comments Friday on social media came after the Pentagon announced it had carried out retaliatory airstrikes late Thursday targeting a munitions warehouse and an intelligence-collection site that U.S. officials described as being controlled by Iran-backed militias in eastern Syria.
An opposition war monitor said the death toll from U.S. strikes included at least 11 Iran-backed fighters — including six at an arms depot in the Harabesh neighborhood in the city of Deir el-Zour and five at military posts near the towns of Mayadeen and Boukamel, The Associated Press reported.
The Iran-backed militias responded to the U.S. counterstrikes with fresh strikes of their own. The New York Times reported Friday that the militias carried out rocket and drone attacks on targets controlled by a U.S.-aligned coalition of forces in Syria, wounding another American in a development that sparked fears of a widening new war.
There are roughly 900 U.S. military personnel and hundreds of Pentagon contractors in Syria. The Biden administration says they are there to prevent a resurgence of the Islamic State terrorist group that had established its capital in Syria during the height of that country’s civil war over the past decade.
The current tit-for-tat of U.S. and Iran-backed strikes is presenting a new foreign policy headache for Mr. Biden, who offered cautious remarks on the situation Friday at a joint press conference with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during a visit to Canada.
Mr. Biden said he had been informed that “Iranian-backed militant groups” had carried out an attack on “one of our facilities causing several American casualties.”
The president went on to warn that the U.S. stands prepared to “act forcefully” to protect its citizens from attacks in Syria. However, he stressed that he does not want to spark a widening U.S.-Iran clash.
“Make no mistake, the United States does not, does not I emphasize, seek conflict with Iran,” Mr. Biden said. “But be prepared for us to act forcefully to protect our people. That’s what happened last night.”
He was referring to the U.S. counterstrikes carried out late Thursday in Syria.
Republican lawmakers have criticized Mr. Biden, noting that attacks on U.S. forces by Iran-backed militias have increased in frequency and asserting that the administration has invited the attacks by failing to respond more aggressively in recent months.
“Indefensible that American life must be lost before Joe Biden acts. Had he responded in force to dozens of earlier Iranian attacks, this tragedy could have been prevented,” Mr. Cotton tweeted Friday.
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, another influential Republican on foreign policy, echoed the sentiment, tweeting, “President Biden and his national security team are letting America down.”
Rep. Mike Waltz, Florida Republican, posted on Twitter a chart purporting to show a spike in attacks by Iran-backed militias in Syria since Mr. Biden took office in early 2021.
Mr. Austin, meanwhile, has emphasized that U.S. forces in Syria are prepared to carry out counter-strikes in Syria.
“At the direction of President Biden, I authorized U.S. Central Command forces to conduct precision airstrikes tonight in eastern Syria against facilities used by groups affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC),” the defense secretary said in a statement circulated by the Pentagon on Thursday.
“The airstrikes were conducted in response to today’s attack as well as a series of recent attacks against Coalition forces in Syria by groups affiliated with the IRGC.”
“As President Biden has made clear, we will take all necessary measures to defend our people and will always respond at a time and place of our choosing,” said Mr. Austin. “No group will strike our troops with impunity.”
The Pentagon statement said Thursday night’s “precision strikes” were “intended to protect and defend U.S. personnel.”
“The United States took proportionate and deliberate action intended to limit the risk of escalation and minimize casualties,” it said.
• Joseph Clark contributed to this report.