US, allies begin bombing IS targets in Syria

The United States and five Arab allies launched a wide-ranging air campaign against the Islamic State (IS) and at least one other extremist group in Syria for the first time early Tuesday, targeting the groups’ bases, training camps and checkpoints in at least four provinces, according to the United States military and Syrian activists.

The attacks struck a fierce opening blow against the jihadists of the IS, scattering their forces and damaging the network of facilities they have built in Syria that helped fuel the group’s seizure of a large part of Iraq this year.

Separate from the attacks on the IS, the United States Central Command, or Centcom, said that American forces acting alone “took action” against “a network of seasoned Al Qaeda veterans” from the Khorasan group in Syria to disrupt “imminent attack planning against the United States and Western interests.”

Al Qaeda cut ties with the IS earlier this year because the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, disobeyed orders from Al Qaeda to fight only in Iraq. Just days ago, American officials said the Khorasan group, led by a shadowy figure who was once in Osama bin Laden’s inner circle, had emerged in the past year as the Syria-based cell most intent on launching a terror attack on the United States or on its installations overseas. The latest campaign opened with multiple strikes before dawn that focused on the IS’s de facto capital, the city of Raqqa, and on its bases in the surrounding countryside. Other strikes hit in the provinces of Deir al-Zour and Hasaka, whose oil wells the IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL, have exploited to finance its operations.

The extent of the damage caused by the strikes remained unclear. Centcom said the wave of fighter planes, bombers, drones and cruise missiles struck 14 targets linked to the IS. “All aircraft safely exited the strike areas,” the statement said. Almost 50 cruise missiles were launched from two American vessels in the Red Sea and the north of the Persian Gulf, it said, adding that four other attacks were launched on militant targets in Iraq in the same period, bringing the total there to 194.

The intensity and scale of the strikes were greater than those launched by the United States in Iraq, where it has been bombing select IS targets for months. The air campaign also marks the biggest direct military intervention in Syria since the crisis began more than three years ago. Centcom identified the Arab states participating in the campaign as Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Their participation is seen as important to limit criticisms that the United States is waging war alone against Muslims. But their role varied between support for the strikes and participation, the military said. 

In intervening in Syria, the United States is injecting its military might into a brutal civil war between the government of President Bashar al-Assad, the IS and a range of rebel groups that originally took up arms to fight Assad but have also come to oppose the IS. It was unclear what effect the American-led strikes would have on the larger conflict. The IS, while having chalked up numerous victories against the Syrian and Iraqi security forces and against Syrian rebels, has proved vulnerable to air power in Iraq, and it is unlikely that it can continue to hold all of its territory and facilities amid a sustained air campaign.

Diplomatic tussle

American officials said that the strikes were not coordinated with the government of Assad, who President Obama has said has lost his legitimacy to rule and should step down. But Syrian state television reported on Monday that the United States had informed Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations before the attacks were launched. This followed weeks of threats by Syrian officials that any uncoordinated strikes on Syria would be considered an act of aggression.

Some of Syria’s allies have suggested that the government in Damascus would benefit from strikes, although analysts question whether the Syrian military has the forces it would need to do so. Syria also has hundreds of rebels groups, many of which hate the IS, and the United States has been working with allies to build up a small number groups deemed moderate. But these forces remain relatively small and are far from the IS’s locations, so there is little chance that they will soon be able to seize control of any areas vacated by the IS.

Reuters quoted an unidentified IS fighter as saying “these attacks will be answered.” The militants have already released videos showing the beheadings of two American hostages and of one British captive, and have threatened a fourth hostage, a Briton, with the same fate. Additionally, an Algerian group linked to IS has claimed to have kidnapped a French citizen. prime minister Manuel Valls told French radio that there would be “no discussion, no negotiation and we will never give in to blackmail” about the hostage’s fate.

France, whose warplanes joined the air campaign in Iraq last week but not the overnight strikes in Syria, has strongly denied persistent reports that it has paid ransom money to free its citizens held hostage by jihadist groups.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported strikes in five Syrian provinces, in the country’s north and east, targeting bases and training camps of the IS and other groups. In addition to IS bases in the provinces of Raqqa, Hasaka, Deir al-Zour and Aleppo, strikes also hit bases belonging to the Nusra Front further west, killing at least seven Nusra fighters and eight civilians, according to the observatory, which tracks the conflict from Britain through a network of contacts in Syria.

Even for a population that has grown used to the sounds and sights of war, the new strikes proved surprising. In a video posted online, a man in Idlib Province inspected a greenish metal hunk of what he said was the remainder of the munitions used in a strike.“No one knows what happened yet,” the man said. “This was the first time we have heard an explosion like this during this revolution.” Adding to the broader ramifications of the Syrian war, the Israeli military said Tuesday that it had shot down a Syrian fighter jet that had “infiltrated into Israeli airspace,” the first such incident in at least a quarter of a century. Lt Col Peter Lerner, a military spokesman, said the Patriot air-defence system had intercepted a Russian-made Sukhoi warplane over the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights around 9:15 am.

On Syria’s northern border, meanwhile, more than 130,000 Syrian Kurds have fled into Turkey to escape an advance by IS fighters. The humanitarian catastrophe could worsen within days. the United Nations relief agency in Geneva said on Tuesday that it was making contingency plans for all 400,000 inhabitants of a Syrian Kurdish border town to try to flee into Turkey.

In Britain, senior officials said Prime Minister David Cameron was weighing whether to seek Parliament’s approval to join the air war, but only in Iraq and at the invitation of the Baghdad government.

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