by VOA News
President Barack Obama on Tuesday hailed the coalition of Arab states that joined U.S. forces to pound Islamic State targets in Syria, calling it a sign that Middle Eastern people were “standing up for the peace and security that the people of the region and the world 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.
“America is proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with these nations on behalf of our common security. The strength of this coalition makes it clear to the world that this not America’s fight alone,” Obama said in a brief televised statement. “Above all, the people and governments in the Middle East are rejecting ISIL and standing up for the peace and security that the people of the region and the world deserve.”
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 the Islamic State 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 Islamic State group’s main stronghold of Raqqa.
Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had either participated or supported the strikes, which involved jets, bombers, drones and ships firing cruise missiles.
“Last night’s strikes were the beginning of a credible and sustainable campaign to destroy and degrade (the Islamic State),” Lt. Gen. William Mayville told reporters at a Pentagon briefing. “(More) strikes like these can be expected.”
Tuesday’s 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 Islamic State 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.
It was unclear exactly what sort of notification the United States had given Syria prior to the attacks.
In a government statement read on state TV, the Syrian Foreign Ministry said Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem had received a letter from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry via the foreign minister of Iraq, whose Shiite-led government is a close ally of Damascus.
However, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman appeared to dispute that, 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.”
Asked if there had been any sign that Syrian anti-aircraft defense forces had targeted the coalition planes or missile, Mayville said only there had been “passive radar acquisition.” That suggested that Syria deliberately chose not make any moves that could have been seen as threatening or provocative.
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.
“Once again, it must be clear to anyone who would plot against America and do Americans harm that we will not tolerate safe havens for terrorists who threaten our people,” Obama said.
Obama said on Sept. 10 he had authorized the expanded use of airstrikes in Syria against the Islamic State. 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 Tuesday’s attacks, the U.S. had conducted 190 airstrikes, in an effort to help Iraqi and Kurdish forces push fighters from vulnerable populations and government infrastructure.
The addition of Arab allies in the attacks was crucial for the credibility of the American-led campaign. Some U.S. allies in the Middle East are skeptical of how far Washington will commit to a conflict in which nearly every country in the region has a stake, set against the backdrop of Islam’s 1,300-year-old rift between Sunnis and Shiites.
With the backing of Jordan and the Gulf states, Washington has gained the support of Sunni states that are hostile to Assad. It has not, however, won the support of Assad himself or his main regional ally, Shiite Iran.
Traditional Western allies, including Britain which went to war alongside the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, have so far declined to participate in the campaign. France has struck Islamic State in Iraq but not in Syria.
Australia Welcomes Strikes; Russia Criticizes
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott praised the effort, saying an international effort was needed to combat the Islamic State threat. Australia has promised to contribute 600 troops and eight warplanes.
“This is a global problem,” Abbott told parliament Tuesday. “These are people who have been radicalized and brutalized, and could become potential terrorists in their home countries.”
Australian law enforcement this week conducted sweeping counter-terrorism operations in 25 locations in Sydney and Brisbane, after officials warned of imminent threats from people returning from conflicts in the Middle East. Intelligence officials have estimated 60 Australian nationals are fighting alongside radical groups.
The sweeps resulted in two people being charged with serious offenses.
In Moscow, meanwhile, Russia said the attacks they should have been agreed upon with its ally Damascus and would fuel tension in the region.
“Any such action can be carried out only in accordance with international law,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
“That implies not a formal, one-sided ‘notification’ of airstrikes but the presence of explicit consent from the government of Syria or the approval of a corresponding U.N. Security Council decision,” the statement said.
VOA’s Phil Mercer in Australia and Carla Babb at the Pentagon contributed to this report. Material from Reuters was used in this report.