Editor's note: Last updated at 8:10 p.m.
Three American troops were killed in a drone attack in Jordan near the Syria border on Sunday, leading to calls for retaliation against Iran and fears of greater escalation in the broader, brewing war in the Middle East.
Today, America’s heart is heavy. Last night, three U.S. service members were killed — and many wounded — during an unmanned aerial drone attack on our forces stationed in northeast Jordan near the Syria border. While we are still gathering the facts of this attack, we know it was carried out by radical Iran-backed militant groups operating in Syria and Iraq.
Jill and I join the families and friends of our fallen—and Americans across the country—in grieving the loss of these warriors in this despicable and wholly unjust attack. These service members embodied the very best of our nation: Unwavering in their bravery. Unflinching in their duty. Unbending in their commitment to our country— risking their own safety for the safety of their fellow Americans, and our allies and partners with whom we stand in the fight against terrorism. It is a fight we will not cease.
According to the Pentagon, the attack occurred on a small outpost called Tower 22 in northeast Jordan and at least 34 were injured. A Sunday night update by CENTCOM said there are 350 U.S. Air Force and Army personnel deployed to the Tower 22 base, where they "conduct a number of key support functions, including support to the coalition for the the lasting defeat of ISIS."
Earlier on Sunday, Jordanian officials said the attack occurred in Syria, not in Jordan. The U.S. maintains that the strike hit in Jordan.
Meanwhile, the Washington Post has reported that a senior official with the Islamic Resistance in Iraq — an umbrella group that includes Kataib Hezbollah, Nujaba, and other Iran-backed militants — claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement to the paper, "on the condition of anonymity in line with rules set by the group."
“As we said before, if the U.S. keeps supporting Israel, there will escalations. All the U.S. interests in the region are legitimate targets and we don’t care about U.S. threats to respond, we know the direction we are taking and martyrdom is our prize,” the Islamic Resistance in Iraq official said.
The U.S. military has been fending off, and retaliating against, numerous attacks by Iranian-backed militants in Iraq and Syria for several years. They only increased in number — over 130 — after the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks and ensuing Israeli war in Gaza. Most of the rocket, drone, and ballistic missiles had been thwarted by U.S. defenses, and there have been few injuries limited to service members being treated for traumatic brain injuries and returned to the job. The Pentagon reported that Chief Warrant Officer 4 Garrett Illerbrunn from the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade was critically injured in a Christmas Day in a drone attack on Erbil Airbase in Northern Iraq. According to CNN he was sent back to the U.S. for further treatment.
There are currently around 900 U.S. service members stationed in Syria and 1500 in Iraq for ongoing counterterrorism operations. Critics say without a clear strategy or justification for being there, they have been increasingly put in harm's way. "There will be understandable calls for revenge and counterstrikes. Biden will almost certainly go down that path. Know that this is how America gets dragged into endless war," said the Quincy Institute's Trita Parsi.
"Retaliations, which in the moment, may feel justified by the unacceptable attacks of these militias, put us on a path toward a war that doesn’t serve our interests and that we cannot afford— and one whose victory we cannot define and whose exit we cannot envision."
More from the Quincy Institute's Adam Weinstein: "POTUS & Congress need to ask WHY we are accepting this risk to US life? How does it benefit the US? It clearly doesn't," he posted on X shortly after the news broke Sunday. "There will be calls for revenge, escalation & reestablishing deterrence. If US troops devolve into a permanent lightning rod for unaccountable militias, nobody benefits except the militias."
Dan DePetris of Defense Priorities tells RS: "The U.S. will eventually retaliate to this attack. But any counterstrikes will be a short-term measure. The only antidote to more casualties in the future is to leave Syria entirely.”
(Ret.) Lt. Col. Daniel Davis responded to many of the calls for a quick, hard strike against Iran on Sunday. "I have strenuously argued that we need to reposition those troops elsewhere in the Middle East, where they’re not so vulnerable and easy targets for Iran," he said. "Now the thing I warned about has happened, and everybody wants to make a large strike on Iran itself, which will only inflame the situation further. Almost no one is thinking about What Comes Next?"
Dan Caldwell, Iraq Veteran and former congressional staffer, has been arguing for U.S troops to come home for years, pointing out that they do not have a clear mission, particularly after the Syria war did not end in the regime change but left Syria's Bashar Assad in power, dueling factions, refugee camps, and foreign footprints (including U.S., Iran, and Russia) in place.
"Those who run our foreign policy — both civilian and military — cling to the delusion that there is something positive to salvage from the wreckage of American policy in Iraq and Syria," he told RS. "They are content to feed some of our best to the meat grinder to maintain that fantasy."
U.S. Central Command said as "a matter of respect for the families and in accordance with DoD policy, the identities of the servicemembers will be withheld until 24 hours after their next of kin have been notified. Updates will be provided as they become available."
This story is developing