The U.S. and Arab allies launched what leaders declared would be a long and sustained military assault against IS strongholds in Syria and Iraq, and the U.S. simultaneously targeted an Al-Qaeda cell said to be plotting imminent attacks on American and other Western interests, the Pentagon said Tuesday.
Hours after the barrage of airstrikes began, Lt. Gen. William Mayville said the attacks destroyed key IS training camps and facilities. But he said it was too early to tell whether they were able to disrupt a terrorist attack being planned by Al-Qaeda militants, known as the Khorasan Group. He said the group was “nearing the execution phase” of an attack against Europe or the U.S.
President Barack Obama said that Arab support for the airstrikes “makes it clear to the world this is not America’s fight alone.”
“We’re going to do what’s necessary to take the fight to this terrorist group, for the security of the country and the region and for the entire world,” Obama said as he left Washington for meetings of the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey said the U.S. and its Arab allies achieved their aim of showing the extremists their attacks will not go unanswered.
The U.S. and five Arab nations attacked the headquarters of IS in eastern Syria in nighttime raids using land- and sea-based U.S. aircraft as well as Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from two Navy ships in the Red Sea and the northern Gulf.
Gen. William Mayville, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at the Pentagon that the U.S. carried out the vast majority of the strikes in an operation against IS that he said would continue and likely last “in terms of years.”
He said the strikes included IS militants’ financial centers in order to disrupt the group’s activities.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-regime monitoring group, said it believed at least 150 IS militants were killed in a series of strikes on their positions in the east – in Raqqa, Deir al-Zor and Hassakeh provinces.
In strikes against targets in western Aleppo province, the Observatory said at least 50 members of the Nusra front, most of whom were non-Syrians, were killed, while eight Syrian civilians – four of them children – lost their lives in missile strikes that targeted the village of Kfar Derian. In all, America and its Arab allies launched more than 200 airstrikes against roughly a dozen militant targets in Syria during the assault, a U.S. official said.
American military officials indicated that the majority of the missiles fired from Navy ships targeted the Khorasan Group, in western Aleppo province.
American warplanes also carried out eight airstrikes to disrupt what the military described as “imminent attack plotting against the United States and Western interests” by the shadowy group, a network of Al-Qaeda veterans working with the Yemeni branch of Al-Qaeda to get foreign fighters with Western passports and explosives to target U.S. aviation.
Mayville said the Syrian government did not interfere with the operation. He said the strikes did not specifically target IS leaders, and that he was unaware of any civilian casualties.
Apparently trying to position his government on the side of the airstrikes, Syrian President Bashar Assad said Tuesday that he supported any international effort against terrorism. He spoke during a meeting with Faleh al-Fayadh, an envoy of Iraq’s prime minister.
But the U.S. told the U.N. secretary-general that airstrikes against IS strongholds in Syria were launched because the country’s leaders had failed to stand up to the threat.
“The Syrian regime has shown that it cannot and will not confront these safe havens effectively itself,” says Tuesday’s letter from U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power to Ban Ki-moon.
“Accordingly, the United States has initiated necessary and proportionate military actions in Syria in order to eliminate the ongoing [IS ] threat to Iraq,” the letter said, hours after the airstrikes began.
Obama said the U.S. was “proud to stand shoulder-to-shoulder” with Arab partners, and he called the roll: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Bahrain and Qatar. All but Qatar actually launched airstrikes. Qatar played a supporting role.
Dempsey called the strikes an unprecedented coalition with Arab states and said the partnering had set the stage for a broader international campaign against the extremists.
“We wanted to make sure that [IS ] knew they have no safe haven, and we certainly achieved that,” Dempsey told reporters as he flew to Washington after a weeklong trip to Europe.
Dempsey said the five Arab nations’ agreement to join in the airstrikes came together quickly. “Once we had one of them on board, the others followed quickly thereafter,” he said, adding that the partnership came together over the past three days.
Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking in New York at a counterterrorism forum, said Turkey, too, has joined the coalition and “will be very engaged on the front lines of this effort.”
The president received swift bipartisan backing from Congress. Republican House Speaker John Boehner called the airstrikes “just one step in what must be a larger effort to destroy and defeat” IS .
Sen. Carl Levin, the Democrat who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the Arab partners’ involvement was “especially significant.”
Dempsey said the timing was influenced by a concern that word of strikes in eastern Syria could prompt the Khorasan Group to disperse.
Central Command said the bombing mission against that group was undertaken solely by U.S. aircraft and took place west of the city of Aleppo. It said targets included training camps, an explosives and munitions production facility, a communication building and command and control facilities.
The airstrikes were part of the expanded military campaign that Obama authorized nearly two weeks ago in order to disrupt and destroy the IS militants, who have slaughtered thousands of people, beheaded Westerners – including two American journalists – and captured large swaths of Syria and northern and western Iraq.
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