U.S. expands war against Islamic State with airstrikes in Syria

By Craig Whitlock

The United States and several Middle East partners pounded Islamic State targets in Syria on Tuesday with waves of warplanes and Tomahawk cruise missiles in an aggressive and risky operation marking a new phase in the conflict.

A statement issued by the U.S. Central Command early Tuesday said a “mix of fighter, bomber, remotely-piloted aircraft and Tomahawk” cruise missiles destroyed or damaged multiple Islamic State targets in Syria, where a civil war has been raging for more than three years.

The U.S. statement said “partner nations,” including Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, “participated in or supported” the operation, although it provided no details. The involvement of these regional allies is key for the legitimacy and logistics of the operation.

The written statement said 14 airstrikes damaged or destroyed Islamic State training compounds, storage facilities, a finance center, supply trucks and several armed vehicles.

It said 47 Tomahawk cruise missiles were also launched against the group from two U.S. carriers operating in international waters. U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corp fighters were also involved in the strikes, the statement said.

The statement said airstrikes also struck an al-Qaeda group in Syria — theKhorasan Group — that had established a safe haven around the embattled city of Aleppo and was planning an attack against the United States and Western interests.

“The U.S. Central Command conducted eight strikes against Khorasan Group targets west of Aleppo to include training camps, an explosives and munitions production facility, a communication building and command and control facilities,” the statement said.

Residents of the north-central Syrian city of Raqqah — the Islamic State’s self-declared capital — reported large explosions and said repeated passes from military aircraft were clearly audible.

“There were 18 air strikes in Raqqah,” said Abo Jilan, an activist from Raqqah who runs the group Raqqah is Being Silently Slaughtered. “Seven of them hit the main headquarters of ISIS, which was hugely damaged.” The Islamic State is also known as ISIS or ISIL.

While U.S. planes have been hitting Islamic State targets for more than a month in Iraq, airstrikes within Syria have considerably expanded the effort.

The United States has worked assiduously to build an international coalition against the Islamic State and has placed a special emphasis on recruiting Muslim countries. Until Monday, those countries had been reluctant to join, at least publicly, fueling doubts about their willingness to attack an Arab neighbor.

By enlisting the five Arab countries to participate in the Syria operation, however, the Obama administration could now boast of a major diplomatic achievement. Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates in particular have well-trained and well-equipped air forces, thanks largely to long-standing military partnerships with the Pentagon.

President Obama and other U.S. leaders had all but promised in recent days that the United States would carry out airstrikes against Islamic State strongholds in Syria. The jihadist movement — which the CIA estimates has up to 31,000 fighters at its disposal — controls much of eastern Syria and has used its bases there as a springboard for seizing territory in neighboring Iraq.

But in ordering the attacks, Obama also thrust the U.S. military directly into Syria’s devastating civil war, a step that he had steadfastly tried to avoid since the country began breaking apart in 2011.

The U.S.-led military operation in Syria came just hours before Obama was scheduled to arrive in New York to attend the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly and make a further pitch for other countries to join the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State.

Obama was on the cusp of ordering U.S. military strikes in Syria a year ago to punish President Bashar al-Assad after strong evidence emerged that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons against civilians. Obama backed away at the last minute, however, when Syria agreed to an international plan to destroy its massive chemical weapons arsenal.

This time, the Americans’ target is not Assad, who has managed to cling to his seat in Damascus, but the Islamic State, a onetime al-Qaeda affiliate that has exploited the chaos in Syria to attract a huge flow of recruits, weapons and money.

The Islamic State also represents a mortal threat to Assad and has beaten back his forces on several fronts. The Obama administration has said repeatedly that it would not cooperate with Assad in any way, even though the two sides now share an enemy. As a result, it was unclear how Assad’s armed forces would respond to unauthorized intrusions into Syrian airspace by U.S. warplanes.

The Syrian government has some of the most formidable air defenses in the Middle East. Obama had publicly warned Syria in advance not to interfere with any U.S. operations against the Islamic State, saying the Pentagon would respond forcefully. In the end, U.S. military planners said they expected Assad would stand down and allow them to attack Islamic State targets freely.

The Pentagon did not say which military bases it relied upon to conduct the airstrikes. It has several major air bases in the Persian Gulf, including in the U.A.E., Qatar and Kuwait. The U.S. Navy, whose ships launched the Tomahawk missiles into Syria, keeps its 5th Fleet headquarters in Bahrain.

Those bases have played a crucial role in the U.S. military campaign in Iraq. Since Aug. 8, U.S. warplanes and drones have conducted 190 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq, but the U.S. military has only a handful of reconnaissance aircraft in the country.

The Pentagon has sent 1,600 advisers and other troops to Iraq to help Iraqi government forces and Kurdish fighters combat the Islamic State. But air power has been the crux of the U.S. military involvement in the region.

To reach eastern Syria from the Persian Gulf, the U.S. military and its allies almost certainly would have had to rely on long-range tanker aircraft to refuel their warplanes.

The Pentagon also has a large number of aircraft stationed at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, a NATO installation. But with the exception of unarmed U.S. surveillance drones based there, Turkish authorities have said they will not allow the U.S. military to conduct airstrikes against the Islamic State from their territory.

Earlier Monday, Obama and other senior administration officials informed congressional leaders about plans to target the Islamic State in Syria.

Obama spoke Monday evening by telephone with House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), telling them of plans to begin an expanded military campaign into Syria, according to senior congressional aides.

Vice President Biden phoned Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and her GOP counterpart, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), aides said. And House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.) was informed by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, according to an aide to the lawmaker.

Arab participation in the operation began to solidify in recent days.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry met with leaders of the Arab states involved last week. All had told the administration weeks ago that their air forces would participate in Syria strikes if the United States provided a viable plan and convinced them that it would follow through.

Although France has agreed to join in airstrikes in Iraq, and last week conducted a bombing raid there, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Monday that his government did not believe it had the legal basis to join the Syria operations.

Since the Iraq strikes began during the summer, the U.S.-backed Syrian Opposition Coalition has pleaded for similar action in Syria, along with the Obama administration’s agreement, approved last week by Congress, to sharply increase weapons shipments and authorize the U.S. military to provide training on the ground in the region.

In remarks Monday to reporters at the United Nations, coalition President Hadi al-Bahra reiterated his plea for “immediate” U.S. and coalition strikes in Syria. “Time is of the essence,” Bahra said. “Hitting them in Iraq alone will not work if they can continue to operate, regroup, train and plan inside Syria.”

Senior opposition leaders were first told Sunday about the pending strikes, said one, speaking on condition of anonymity about the secret conversations. The official said the coalition was coordinating with the United States on “targeting, sequencing and next steps in the military campaign.”

Ed O’Keefe and Karen DeYoung contributed to this report from Washington, Rebecca Collard from Beirut, and Daniela Deane from Rome.

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