WASHINGTON — Six American service members suffered traumatic brain injuries in separate attacks by Iranian-backed militants in Syria last week, the Pentagon said on Thursday.
The Pentagon initially said that seven Americans were injured in the attacks and that a U.S. contractor was killed. But additional injuries were diagnosed during routine screenings in recent days, Brig. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters on Thursday.
In recent years, the Pentagon has tried to better understand the effects in service members of traumatic brain injuries, which sometimes cause long-term physical or mental disabilities.
The diagnoses followed two attacks. The first, a strike by a self-destructing drone on March 23, hit a coalition base in northeast Syria, killing the civilian contractor, who was a vehicle mechanic.
Two U.S. F-15E fighter jets retaliated later that day by launching airstrikes against militant sites linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, a powerful branch of Iran’s military. General Ryder said eight militants were killed in that strike.
The next day, Iranian-backed militias launched a volley of rocket and drone attacks that injured another American. U.S. warplanes were poised to conduct a second round of reprisal strikes late Friday, but a senior U.S. official has said the White House decided to hold off.
The United States has more than 900 troops, and hundreds more contractors, in Syria, working with Kurdish fighters to prevent a resurgence of the Islamic State, which was ostensibly defeated as a caliphate in 2019 after a violent five-year campaign across Iraq and Syria.
With the Biden administration’s focus shifting to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and a potential future conflict with China, the counter-Islamic State military mission in Syria has become something of a back-burner issue. The mission has received greater attention only when Iranian-backed militias or Islamic State militants have attacked the U.S. troops who rotate in and out across a handful of bases there.
For the Biden administration, it is a balancing act. President Biden has made clear that he has no interest in continuing the so-called forever wars that were part of the national psyche for the first 20 years of this century. He withdrew American troops from Afghanistan in 2021, and has kept them out of Ukraine, while instructing Pentagon planners to focus on Asia and the potential for great-power conflicts with Russia and China.
Those long conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan, the administration maintains, are a thing of the past, except for in Syria, where Iranian-backed militias have launched dozens of attacks in the past year at or near bases where U.S. troops are stationed.