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Biden called off second Syria strike after last minute warning of woman and children at target site

Oliver O'Connell
·2-min read
President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin at the Pentagon on 10 February, 2021  (Getty Images)
President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin at the Pentagon on 10 February, 2021 (Getty Images)

Joe Biden called off an airstrike on a second target in Syria at the last minute after intelligence reported the presence of a woman and children at the site.

Following 10 days of deliberations, Mr Biden had ordered the Pentagon to proceed with strikes on two Iranian-backed militia targets in Syria on 26 February. The strikes were in response to the rocket attack against US forces in northern Iraq in mid-February.

The president received an urgent warning from an aide just 30 minutes before the bombs were set to fall, according to reporting by The Wall Street Journal.

Battlefield reconnaissance reported a woman with children in a courtyard at one site, and the president cancelled the order to strike that target with F-15E aircraft already in the air for the mission.

The attack on the first target went ahead on the advice of defence secretary Lloyd Austin. One militia fighter was killed and two were injured, according to Pentagon officials.

The intention of the strike was to signal to leadership in Iran that the new administration would respond to provocation in the Middle East but is not seeking to escalate tensions.

The Journal reports officials as saying that a confidential message was also sent to Tehran following the strike to reinforce the point.

An Iranian-backed militia attacked Erbil airport in northern Iraq on 15 February, killing a contractor and wounding seven Americans.

According to a timeline of what followed, a series of meetings began the next day between the White House, Pentagon, and intelligence agencies tasked with establishing which militia group was responsible.

Following a second attack on 20 February when rockets targeted Balad Airbase in Iraq injuring a contractor, options for how to respond were refined and reviewed by the president before being finalised by the Pentagon.

Ahead of the strike, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al Kadhimi is called. On the day, Mr Biden selected the strike option, and allies were notified in addition to some lawmakers.

“We had a pretty coordinated diplomatic and military plan here,” an administration official told the Journal. “We made sure the Iranians knew what our intent was.”

Another official said: “We knew that this was the first time we were going to be making a decision like this and that we would be under a lot of scrutiny.”

In choosing to attack at night and by avoiding striking in Iraqi territory, for his first military action Mr Biden chose an option that would minimise casualties — underlined by the calling off of the second strike — but still send a stern message.

However, the administration line to Iran is that it cannot act with impunity in the region and the US will respond to attacks on coalition forces and personnel.

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