US, Arab partners launch first strikes on ISIS in Syria

تم نشره في Tue 23 September / Sep 2014. 11:10 AM - آخر تعديل في Wed 24 September / Sep 2014. 03:14 PM
  • Weapon handlers carry an air to air missile from a F/A-18F Super Hornet of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA-213) onboard the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77), in the Gulf August 12, 2014. REUTERS

WASHINGTON/BEIRUT (Reuters) - The United States and several Gulf Arab allies launched air and missile strikes on Islamic State strongholds in Syria on Tuesday, U.S. officials said, opening a new, far more complicated front in the battle against the militants.

"I can confirm that U.S. military and partner nation forces are undertaking military action against (Islamic State) terrorists in Syria using a mix of fighter, bomber and Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles," Rear Admiral John Kirby, Pentagon press secretary, said in a statement.

"Given that these operations are ongoing, we are not in a position to provide additional details at this time."

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Bahrain were all involved, although their exact roles in the military action were unclear. Qatar played a supporting role in the air strikes, the official said.

Another official said at least one U.S. ship had launched surface-to-surface Tomahawk cruise missiles. Armed U.S. drones were also used in the attacks.

The targets included Raqqa city in eastern Syria, the headquarters of Islamic State, an extremist Sunni Muslim force that has seized large expanses of territory in Iraq and Syria and proclaimed a caliphate erasing borders in the heart of the Middle East.

A group monitoring the war in Syria said at least 20 Islamic State fighters were killed.

Syrian state television said the United States informed Syria's U.N. representative on Monday that Islamic State targets would be hit in Raqqa, which is 400 km (250 miles) northeast of Damascus.

The United States has previously stressed it would not coordinate with the government of President Bashar al-Assad in any way in its fight against Islamic State. U.S. President Barack Obama's position has long been that he would like to see Assad leave power, particularly after using chemical weapons against his own people last year.

 

WEAPONS SUPPLIES, CHECKPOINTS HIT

U.S. officials and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group that tracks violence in the Syrian war, said buildings used by the militants, their weapons supplies and checkpoints were targeted in the attacks on Raqqa. Areas along the Iraq-Syria border were also hit.

Rami Abdulrahman, head of the Observatory, which gathers information from a network of activists on the ground, told Reuters in Beirut by phone that at least 50 air strikes had been carried out, with the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front in northwestern Syria also hit.

Residents in Raqqa had said last week that Islamic State was moving underground after Obama signaled on Sept. 11 that air attacks on its forces could be expanded from Iraq to Syria.

The group had evacuated buildings it was using as offices, redeployed its heavy weaponry, and moved fighters' families out of the city, the residents said.

"They are trying to keep on the move," said one Raqqa resident, communicating via the Internet and speaking on condition of anonymity because of safety fears. "They only meet in very limited gatherings."

 

ARAB ALLIES

The addition of Arab allies in the attacks was seen as crucial for the credibility of the American-led campaign. 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 Shi'ites.

As part of U.S. efforts to build the coalition, Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to New York at the weekend, ahead of the start of United Nations General Assembly meetings, for talks with counterparts from Arab and European allies to discuss plans to defeat Islamic State and hear their views on how they might participate.

On Monday, Kerry met Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal and British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, and participated in a meeting of more than a dozen countries, including Arab Gulf States, on the conflict in Libya.

A senior administration official said U.S. plans "to expand our efforts to defeat (Islamic State) were discussed without specifics" during meetings but declined to elaborate.

Several Arab states have powerful air forces, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Saudi Arabia has also already agreed to host U.S. training of Syrian opposition fighters.

But many Gulf Arab states have been reluctant to be seen aggressively joining the U.S. campaign, fearing in some cases reprisals by extremists or forces loyal to the Syrian government.

There was no immediate reaction from Russia, a long-standing arms supplier to Syria and Assad ally, whose ties with Washington are at their lowest since the end of the Cold War.

But Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Monday saying all air strikes on Islamic State bases inside Syria "should not be carried out without the agreement of the government of Syria", the Kremlin said in a statement early Tuesday, before the attacks began.

The strikes took place hours before Obama goes to New York for the U.N. General Assembly where he will try to rally more nations behind his drive to aggressively take on Islamic State.

Obama had shied away from getting involved in Syria's civil war a year ago, seeing no positive outcome for the United States, but the rise of Islamic State and the beheading of two American captives forced him to change course.

General Lloyd Austin, commander of the U.S. military's Central Command, made the decision to conduct the strikes under authorization granted to him by Obama, Kirby said.

"We will provide more details later as operationally appropriate," Kirby said.

 

FACTBOX: Arab states line up behind U.S. in fight against Islamic State

The United States launched air and missile strikes in Syria with Arab allies on Tuesday, killing dozens of Islamic State fighters and members of a separate al Qaeda-linked group, and widening its new war in the Middle East.

U.S. Central Command said Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar had participated in or supported the strikes against Islamic State targets. A U.S. official who declined to be named said Qatar had played a supporting role.

Below is a summary of where key countries stand on joining the United States in a military coalition to fight Islamic State:

 

FRANCE

France carried out its first air strike in Iraq on Sept. 19, targeting an Islamic State logistics depot near Mosul. It has since carried out reconnaissance missions and supported Iraqi ground troops near Baghdad, although it has not re-engaged. French special forces are already training Kurdish Peshmerga forces in the north after providing weapons to the Kurds. France continues to rule out air strikes in Syria, fearing that it could change the balance of power on the ground in favor of President Bashar al-Assad, who Paris says is as much of a problem as Islamic State. However, ahead of Monday night's air strikes, French officials backtracked from previous assertions that strikes in Syria would be illegal. They said there was no legal impediment to military action against Islamic State, since it would be in defense of threatened populations. France, which has already provided weapons to "moderate" Syrian rebels, has said it will continue to strengthen the opposition with equipment and training. France’s forces are also stretched, with more than 5,000 troops in West Africa. Its annual overseas defense budget is already almost triple what was originally planned at a time when the government is under severe pressure to cut spending.

 

BRITAIN

Britain has delivered aid and weapons to Kurds in Iraq and promised them training. It has not ruled out taking part in air strikes there, although Prime Minister David Cameron has signaled he would need the approval of parliament.

Britain has also said any strikes in Syria would be more complicated, because they could not be carried out in cooperation with Assad's government.

With an election less than nine months away, the British government is well aware that public resentment lingers over Britain’s role in invading Iraq with the United States in 2003.

Cameron is also scarred by a parliamentary defeat last summer, when MPs voted against military action in Syria.

 

GERMANY

Germany has ruled out taking part in air strikes, but did break a post-World War Two taboo on sending weapons to active conflict zones by agreeing to arm Kurdish fighters battling Islamic State militants in northern Iraq.

 

TURKEY

Turkey, a NATO member and close U.S. ally that borders both Iraq and Syria, has ruled out taking part in the military effort, although 46 Turkish nationals who were held hostage by IS fighters, and might have been endangered, have now been freed. It has suffered directly at the hands of Islamic State, however, as more than 130,000 Syrian Kurds have surged across its border in the past week, fleeing an IS advance on the town of Kobani. 

    Turkey has backed mainly Sunni rebels in Syria and fears any military action against IS could weaken Assad’s foes further. It is also reluctant to strengthen Kurds in Iraq and Syria out of concern that this might stoke demands for independence from its own Kurdish population.

 

NATO

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has said NATO as an organization will not be undertaking military strikes against Islamic State.

 

ARAB COUNTRIES

The West deems Arab participation in the fight against Islamic State crucial to counter accusations that it is pursuing a new Western crusade against Islam in the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Bahrain all took part in Monday night's air strikes, while Qatar played a supporting role, the U.S. official said.

Saudi Arabia had already agreed to host U.S. training of 'moderate' Syrian opposition fighters.

Many Gulf Arab states have been reluctant to be seen joining the U.S. campaign, fearing in some cases reprisals by extremists or forces loyal to the Syrian government.

As a result, even Arab countries with significant anti-insurgency skills such as Egypt and Jordan are unlikely to be involved in any ground operation, though they could provide surveillance, basing facilities, and humanitarian or reconstruction aid.

Egypt, the most populous Arab country, has called for a comprehensive strategy to fight Islamic State, an appeal that has become more urgent after it emerged that the group has ties to the Sinai-based Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, which has killed hundreds of security personnel since the army toppled Islamist president Mohamed Mursi last year.

Cairo has been tight-lipped about how it will assist the American campaign, but the foreign minister has indicated that it will not provide direct military assistance.

Most Arab states are already hard pressed to address multiple internal security concerns, and their priority is containing nearby conflicts, defense and border control.

 

RUSSIA

President Vladimir Putin has discussed the question of potential cooperation with other countries on fighting Islamic State with Russia's Security Council.

But he told U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Monday that air strikes on Islamic State bases inside Syria "should not be carried out without the agreement of the government of Syria". The Russian Foreign Ministry said this meant securing explicit consent, rather than merely notifying Damascus.

Russia has backed Assad in his fight against rebels and sees his survival as a major foreign policy success. It now wants to see the West implicitly acknowledging his legitimacy by dealing with him directly.

Islamic State could be a threat to Russia as it includes in its ranks a number of Muslims from the mountainous North Caucasus region who have been waging their own insurgency following two wars between Moscow and Chechen separatists in 1994-96 and 1999-2000.

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