A U.S. Navy warship in the northern Red Sea on Thursday shot down three cruise missiles and several drones launched from Yemen that the Pentagon said might have been headed toward Israel.
“We cannot say for certain what these missiles and drones were targeting, but they were launched from Yemen heading north along the Red Sea, potentially towards targets in Israel,” Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, the Pentagon spokesman, told reporters.
The missiles and drones were launched by pro-Iranian Houthi rebels in Yemen amid a flurry of drone attacks against American troops in Iraq and Syria over the past three days, General Ryder said. The incidents underscored the risks that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas could spiral into a wider war.
Military analysts were trying to determine who carried out the drone attacks, General Ryder said, but Iran-backed militias have in the past conducted drone and rocket attacks against the 2,500 American troops based in Iraq and the 900 troops in Syria.
Since Hamas’s terrorist attacks against Israel on Oct. 7, the Biden administration has rushed two aircraft carriers and additional troops to the eastern Mediterranean near Israel to deter Iran and its proxies in the region from engaging in a regional war.
Israel has responded to the Hamas attacks with airstrikes and a “complete siege” of Gaza, which the group controls.
Senior Biden administration officials and American commanders have expressed fears that the United States could get dragged into the conflict if the militias attacked U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria.
General Ryder sought to stay on that theme on Thursday despite what he acknowledged was “an uptick” in drone attacks in Iraq and Syria in the past few days.
“Right now, this conflict is contained between Israel and Hamas, and we’re going to do everything we can to ensure deterrence in the region, so that this does not become a broader” conflict, General Ryder said.
Iranian officials, however, have publicly warned that new fronts against Israel could open in the region if its offensive on Gaza continued.
A deputy commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Gholamhossein Gheybparvar, said in a speech on Thursday that Iran-backed militia in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon — known as an “axis of resistance” — were ready to strike Israel if its ground forces invaded Gaza.
On Wednesday, Iran’s state television aired a segment detailing how such attacks could unfold.
The report opened with the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, saying that if the war continued “nobody could stop the forces of the resistance,” referring to a network of militia groups across the region supported by Iran.
Houthis in Yemen from the south, Syrian and Iraqi militias from the east, and Hezbollah in Lebanon from the north would coordinate to attack Israel with missiles and drones to create “a siege from every side,” the report claimed. The segment said that the Houthis had missiles with a range of more than 1,200 miles.
The report said Iraqi militia groups had taken positions alongside Syrian militias near the Golan Heights, an area Israel captured from Syria in 1967 and later annexed.
Iran’s state television routinely broadcasts propaganda and hyperbole, and the military threats could be part of a strategy to fuel growing anxiety in the region.
At the Pentagon on Thursday, General Ryder said that any armed American response to this week’s attacks “should one occur, will come at a time and a manner of our choosing.”
In March, U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that a self-destructing drone of “Iranian origin” killed a U.S. contractor and injured another contractor and five U.S. service members in an attack on a maintenance facility on a coalition base in northeast Syria.
President Biden retaliated by ordering the Pentagon to carry out airstrikes against facilities in eastern Syria used by groups affiliated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
The latest spate of attacks continued on Wednesday morning when U.S. and coalition forces at the Al Tanf base in southern Syria fired on two drones, destroying one while the other slammed into the base causing “minor injuries,” General Ryder said.
About 200 American troops are stationed at Al Tanf, whose main role is training Syrian militias to fight the Islamic State.
At the same time on Wednesday, alert sirens wailed at Al Asad Air Base, a sprawling installation in western Iraq. Though no drone or rocket attacks happened, a civilian contractor, whom the military did not identify, suffered a heart attack while sheltering and died soon afterward, General Ryder said.
On Wednesday, the military’s Central Command said that it had intercepted several drones in Iraq in the previous 24 hours that were menacing American military and other allied personnel in the country.
American forces attacked two drones at Al Asad, destroying one and damaging the other, resulting in “minor injuries” to coalition troops, the command said in a statement. Separately, in northern Iraq, the military destroyed one drone, resulting in no injuries, the command said.
There were unconfirmed reports on social media of additional drone attacks in Syria late Thursday.
“Clearly, this is an uptick in terms of the types of drone activity we’ve seen in Iraq and Syria,” General Ryder said.
Pentagon officials warned that the cruise-missile and drone attacks could augur a dangerous escalation of violence that could endanger American forces in the region and potentially draw them into a conflict.
In November 2021, American and Israeli officials said that an armed drone strike a month earlier against Al Tanf was Iranian retaliation for Israeli airstrikes in Syria.
The attack caused no casualties, but it marked the first time Iran had directed a military strike against the United States in response to an attack by Israel.