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US Air Defense System Partially Inoperative During Attack in Syria



System Failure and Attack Uncertainties

According to two US officials, the primary air defense system at a northeast Syria coalition military base was “not fully operational” during a suspected Iranian drone attack on Thursday that killed a US contractor and injured six other Americans. It is unclear what caused the system’s partial failure and whether the perpetrators exploited the vulnerability or the incident was coincidental. The Pentagon has launched an investigation into the matter, and military officials are reluctant to disclose weaknesses or failings to evade giving adversaries advantages.

Retaliation and High Alert

The US launched retaliatory strikes about 13 hours after the drone attack, killing eight pro-Iran fighters in eastern Syria. US forces in northeast Syria, where there have been 78 attacks from Iran-backed militias since January 2021, remained on high alert, given the sensitivity of the mission they are engaged in to safeguard against any resurgence of ISIS.

Defensive Measures and Political Questions

The coalition base, called RLZ, has multiple defenses against air and other attacks, with the Avenger missile defense system experiencing a maintenance issue during the attack. Officials have revealed that even the combined defenses may not be foolproof. Defense officials seek to assure that they take measures to safeguard personnel, but the region is inherently dangerous. Charles Lister, the director of the Syria and Countering Terrorism and Extremism programs at the Middle East Institute in the US, has asked whether President Biden is willing to push back more determinedly to establish deterrence effects or allow repeated attacks on American forces.

Iranian Responsibility and US Deterrence Measures

While Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder maintains that the US does not seek conflict with Iran or escalation, the strikes made during the attack were intended to protect US personnel and indicate that the US would respond quickly and decisively if they are under threat. The Pentagon has made a claim that the Iranian drone originates without supporting evidence, and Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III emphasizes the intention to take all necessary measures to defend US people and always respond accordingly. The US uses anonymous sources as a last resort after satisfying certain questions and making sure that the reporter and at least one editor know the identity of the source.

ISIS and the Syrian Conflict

The primary US counter-Islamic State military mission in Syria has become less relevant as the Biden administration focuses on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and a possible future conflict with China. The mission received attention as Iranian-backed militias or ISIS militants attacked US troops in northeast Syria. The US has frequently targeted these groups and carried out airstrikes during incidents that pose threats to the US personnel involved.