US carries out new strikes against facility used by Iran in Syria

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin

By Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States, for the second time in recent weeks, carried out strikes on Wednesday against a weapon storage facility in eastern Syria that the Pentagon said was used by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and affiliated groups.

As tensions soar over the Israel-Hamas conflict, U.S. and coalition troops have been attacked at least 40 times in Iraq and Syria by Iran-backed forces since the start of October. Forty-five U.S. troops have suffered traumatic brain injuries or minor wounds.

In a statement, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the strikes were conducted by two U.S. F-15 fighters and were in response to the recent attacks against U.S. forces.

Austin said the attacks against U.S. troops must stop.

"If attacks by Iran's proxies against U.S. forces continue, we will not hesitate to take further necessary measures to protect our people," Austin added.

A senior U.S. military official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the military had watched the location in Deir al Zor province for some time and was confident there were no civilian casualties.

The official said the military had tracked a "couple" of people near the facility overnight, though they were not believed to be civilians and an analysis was ongoing to see if anyone was killed.

The United States has occasionally carried out retaliatory strikes against Iranian-backed forces in the region after they attack American forces.

On Oct. 26, U.S. forces attacked two facilities used by the IRGC and groups its backs.

The United States has 900 troops in Syria, and 2,500 more in neighboring Iraq, on a mission to advise and assist local forces trying to prevent a resurgence of Islamic State, which in 2014 seized large swathes of both countries but was later defeated.

There is growing concern that the Israel-Hamas conflict could spread through the Middle East and turn U.S. troops at isolated bases into targets.

Earlier on Wednesday, a U.S. MQ-9 drone was shot down near Yemen by the Iran-aligned Houthi movement over the Red Sea.

Officials said the drone was believed to be in international waters when it was shot down.

The United States has sent warships and fighter aircraft to the region since the Israel-Hamas conflict erupted on Oct. 7, including two aircraft carriers, to try to deter Iran and Iran-backed groups. The number of troops added to the region is in the thousands.

Reuters has reported that the U.S. military was taking new measures to protect its Middle East forces during the ramp-up in attacks by suspected Iran-backed groups, and was leaving open the possibility of evacuating military families if needed.

The measures include increasing U.S. military patrols, restricting access to base facilities and boosting intelligence collection, including through drone and other surveillance operations, officials say.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Chris Reese, Lisa Shumaker and Sandra Maler)