Biden changed his plan for the strike on Iran-backed militias at the last minute to avoid killing a woman and children

President Joe Biden in the Oval Office
President Joe Biden in the Oval Office Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images
  • The president changed his plans for an airstrike against Iran-backed militias at the last minute.
  • Battlefield intelligence indicated the presence of a woman and children at one of two strike areas.
  • With fighters in the air, Biden chose to strike only one target, bypassing the one with civilians.
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With strike aircraft already in the air and on their way to the targets, President Joe Biden made last-minute changes to the plans for his first major military order as commander in chief to avoid killing a woman and children, The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday.

Last Thursday, Biden directed the US military to carry out a strike against facilities in Syria used by Iran-backed militias who executed a series of rocket attacks in Iraq that killed and wounded US and coalition personnel.

The Pentagon said in a statement that “the operation sends an unambiguous message: President Biden will act to protect American and coalition personnel.”

Although there have been other military operations since Biden took office, last Thursday’s strikes mark the first known military action the president has personally directed.

F-15E Strike Eagle
F-15E Strike Eagle US Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Chris Drzazgowski

Two F-15E Strike Eagles dropped seven precision-guided munitions that completely destroyed nine facilities and damaged two others at a location in Abu-Kamal along the Iraq-Syria border.

The targets were chosen deliberately to cripple militia operations, as well as send a message to Iran, but not to leave behind a significant number of casualties.

The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that the plan was initially to strike more targets, but Biden, with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s guidance, changed plans with the strike aircraft only about 30 minutes out from the target after intelligence spotted a woman with children in a courtyard.

The battlefield intelligence indicating the presence of a woman with children in the strike area was relayed to the president by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. Biden then had to make a decision to call off the airstrikes or only hit one of the two targets.

Biden opted for the latter. Bombs fell over the lone target at approximately 1:30 am in Syria.

In the aftermath, the president made his message to the Iran-backed militias and Iran clear in a public statement, saying: “You can’t act with impunity. Be careful.”

The Biden administration began planning its response shortly after a rocket attack in mid-February that killed a coalition contractor and wounded at least seven Americans, including a US service member.

Last Thursday morning, Biden met with senior officials in the Situation Room, where he was presented with a selection of possible retaliatory actions. The president’s choice was the most conservative of the available options, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Biden’s decision to alter his plans to prevent the undesired killing of women and children is consistent with other administration actions, such as the decision to curtail drone strikes outside of active war zones amid an ongoing policy review looking, in part, at whether steps need to be taken to better prevent the unintentional killing of civilians.

The airstrike in Syria killed one militia member and wounded two others. The Pentagon stated that the strike achieved its goals amid questions about whether the strikes were a sufficient response.

“This was really designed to do two things: to remove that compound from their utilization of it as an entry control point from Syria into Iraq, and two, to send a very strong signal that we’re not going to tolerate attacks on our people and on our Iraqi partners,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said on Monday.

Although the airstrike was intended to prevent future rocket attacks, Al Asad Airbase in Iraq came under fire Wednesday.

No one was killed by the ten rockets fired at the base, but a US civilian contractor suffered a heart attack while sheltering and died later. The Biden administration is still considering what its response will be as an investigation continues.