US launches airstrikes in Syria after 'Iran-made drone' kills worker

US Correspondent Dan Rivers explains what triggered the exchange and what the implications are

A strike by a suspected Iranian-made drone killed a US contractor and wounded six other Americans in Syria - prompting a US retaliation.

Activists said the US bombing killed at least four people in airstrikes the Pentagon said were focused on sites in Syria used by groups affiliated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.

While it’s not the first time the US and Iran have traded strikes in Syria, the incidents threaten to upend recent efforts to deescalate tensions in the area, whose rival powers have made steps toward easing hostilities.

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement that the American intelligence community had determined the drone was of Iranian origin, but offered no other immediate evidence to support the claim.

The drone hit a coalition base in the northeast Syrian city of Hasaka. The wounded included five American service members and a US contractor.

Mr Austin said the strikes were a response to the drone attack “as well as a series of recent attacks against coalition forces in Syria” by groups affiliated with the Revolutionary Guard.

Iran relies on a network of proxy forces through the Middle East to counter the US and Israel, its arch regional enemy.

The US has had forces in northeast Syria since 2015, which they deployed as part of the fight against the Islamic State group.

It maintains some 900 troops there, working with Kurdish-led forces that control around a third of Syria.

The US airstrikes hit targets in three towns in eastern Syria, activists said. Overnight, videos on social media purported to show explosions in Deir el-Zour, a strategic province that borders Iraq and contains oil fields.

US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin speaks during a briefing at the Pentagon in Washington. Credit: AP

According to a defence official, the US counter strikes were conducted by F-15 fighter jets flying out of al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss military operations.

According to a US official, the US F-15s struck three locations, all in the vicinity of Deir el-Zour.

The activist group Deir Ezzor 24, which covers news in the province, said the American strikes killed four people and wounded a number of others, including Iraqis.

ITV News has not independently confirmed activist reports. Iran and Syria did not immediately acknowledge the strikes.

Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, which answers only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has been suspected of carrying out attacks with bomb-carrying drones across the wider Middle East.

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The exchange of strikes came as Saudi Arabia and Iran have been working toward reopening embassies in each other’s countries.

The kingdom also acknowledged efforts to reopen a Saudi embassy in Syria, whose embattled President Bashar Assad has been backed by Iran in his country’s long war.

US Army General Michael “Erik” Kurilla, the head of the American military’s Central Command, warned that its forces could carry out additional strikes if needed.

“We are postured for scalable options in the face of any additional Iranian attacks,” General Kurilla said in a statement.

Addressing the US House Armed Services Committee on Thursday, General Kurilla warned lawmakers that the “Iran of today is exponentially more militarily capable than it was even five years ago.” He pointed to Iran’s arsenal of ballistic missiles and bomb-carrying drones.

“What Iran does to hide its hand is they use Iranian proxies,” General Kurilla said.

Diplomacy to deescalate the exchange appeared to begin immediately. The foreign minister of Qatar spoke by phone with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan as well as Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, the Qatari state news agency report.

Doha has been an interlocutor between Iran and the US recently amid tensions over Tehran’s nuclear program.

Dareen Khalifa, a senior Syria analyst with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, said that while Thursday’s exchange of strikes comes at a sensitive political moment due to the “overall deterioration of US-Iran relations and the stalling of the nuclear talks,” she does not expect a significant escalation.

“These tit-for-tat strikes have been ongoing for a long time,” Ms Khalifa said, although she noted that they usually do not result in casualties