President Obama on September 23 hailed the coalition of Arab states that joined U.S. forces to pound ISIL targets in Syria, calling it a sign that Middle Eastern people were “standing up for the peace and security the region deserves.”
Hours earlier, U.S. forces and Arab allies hit dozens of targets, using war planes, remote drones and ship-launched cruise missiles to attack the militants in Syria for the first time.
The attacks were the largest of their sort since Obama announced nearly two weeks ago that the U.S. would be stepping up its fight against the group known as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
“This is not America’s fight alone. Above all, the people and governments of the Middle East are rejecting ISIL and standing up for the peace and security that the region deserves,” Obama said in a brief televised statement.
“There will be challenges ahead, but we’re going to do what’s necessary to take the fight to this terrorist group,” he said.
It wasn’t immediately clear how many militants were killed, though the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 120 fighters were killed in strikes that hit at least 50 targets in Raqqa and Deir al-Zor provinces in Syria’s east. Rami Abdulrahman, who heads the London-based group monitoring the Syria war, said at least 300 people, including members of ISIL and al-Qaida, were dead or wounded following the bombings.
U.S. Central Command said 14 airstrikes damaged or destroyed targets in four areas of eastern Syria, including in the group’s main stronghold of Raqqa.
Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had either participated in or supported the strikes, which involved jets, bombers, drones and ships firing cruise missiles, Central Command said.
The action also pitched Washington for the first time into the three-year-old Syrian civil war, which has killed 200,000 people and displaced millions. U.S. forces have previously hit ISIL targets in Iraq, where Washington supports the government, but had held back from a military engagement in Syria, where the United States opposes President Bashar al-Assad.
Syria said that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had told the Damascus government, hours before the airstrikes. However, Damascus, which had said any airstrikes on Syria must have its approval, did not condemn the attacks.
“The foreign minister received a letter from his American counterpart via the Iraqi foreign minister, in which he informed him that the United States and some of its allies would target [ISIL] in Syria,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “That was hours before the raids started.”
The U.S. State Department later clarified the exchange between Damascus and Washington, saying there was no request for permission and that Kerry had not sent any letter to Syria.
“We warned Syria not to engage U.S. aircraft. We did not request the regime’s permission. We did not coordinate our actions with the Syrian government,” spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement. “We did not provide advance notification to the Syrians at a military level, or give any indication of our timing on specific targets. Secretary Kerry did not send a letter to the Syrian regime.”
The Sunni fighters, who have proclaimed a caliphate ruling over all Muslims, alarmed the Middle East by sweeping through northern Iraq in June. They shocked the West in recent weeks by beheading two U.S. journalists and a British aid worker, raising fears that they could attack Western countries.
ALLEGED PLOT DISRUPTED
American forces also conducted eight airstrikes west of Aleppo against a group of former al-Qaida fighters known as the Khorasan Group. That action was in response to an “imminent” plot against U.S. and Western interests, Central Command said.
Obama said September 10 he had authorized the expanded use of airstrikes in Syria against ISIL. The Sunni fighters, now equipped with U.S. weapons seized during their advance in Iraq, are among the most powerful opponents of Assad, who is a member of a Shiite-derived sect.
They are also battling against rival Sunni groups in Syria, against the Shiite-led government of Iraq and against Kurdish forces on both sides of the border.
In the past week, the militants’ advance has also included Kurdish areas in northern Syria, along the Turkish border, leading to more than 130,000 people crossing into Turkey.
Before the September 23 attacks, the U.S. had conducted 190 airstrikes, in an effort to help Iraqi and Kurdish forces push fighters back from vulnerable populations and government infrastructure.