The U.S. and Arab allies launched airstrikes in Syria targeting Islamic State and an al-Qaeda-linked group in what President Barack Obama called a “powerful message to the world” that America will do whatever is necessary to eliminate terrorist havens.
Fighter jets, bomber aircraft and Tomahawk missiles were used to hit 14 Islamic State targets near their stronghold of Raqqa and along the Iraqi border. Eight separate strikes targeted the Khorasan group, a network of al-Qaeda veterans that the Pentagon said was planning attacks against the U.S.
Obama, speaking at the White House, emphasized the participation of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain in the operation.
“This is not America’s fight alone,” Obama said before leaving Washington for the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York. “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 has vowed to defeat Islamic State, which has seized a swath of territory across Iraq and Syria. That has prompted alarm among neighboring nations, including the Sunni Arab monarchies taking part in the operation. The Pentagon had previously limited its airstrikes to targets in Iraq.
In a visit to the Florida headquarters of the U.S. Central Command last week, Obama told military chiefs to begin the airstrikes in Syria as soon as they were ready, according to Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser. Obama sent a formal notice to Congress today that he was acting under his authority as commander in chief.
Rear Admiral John Kirby, spokesman for the Pentagon, said the airstrikes carried out last night “were only the beginning.”
The U.S. ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, in letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, called the airstrikes in Syria an act of self defense to remove a threat to Iraq, the U.S. and its allies, according to a copy of the correspondence obtained by Bloomberg News.
She invoked Article 51 of United Nations Charter, which requires countries to immediately report acts of self-defense to the Security Council.
The Khorasan group also was targeted because it posed a threat “to the United States and our partners and allies,” Power wrote.
Administration officials who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity said the group was actively seeking holders of passports from western nations and their plotting was the reason aviation security was bolstered a few months ago.
Intelligence agencies haven’t seen similar plotting against the U.S. by Islamic State, the officials said.
Obama described the group as made up of “seasoned al-Qaeda operatives.” Its members have fought and lived together in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Yemen, according to one of the administration officials.
Obama will address the United Nations General Assembly tomorrow about the threat posed by Islamic State, and then lead a Security Council session on the danger of would-be terrorists from other countries honing their skills in conflict zones.
The president plans to meet this afternoon with representatives from the five Arab countries that participated in the strikes, Rhodes told reporters traveling with Obama. He also will spend part of his time at the UN trying to expand support for the campaign against Islamic State, which also includes training and equipping vetted members of the opposition in Syria.
Reaction was muted from Iran, which has been assisting Iraq’s battle with Islamic State. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, whose country has been at odds with the U.S. for 35 years, said Iran couldn’t endorse any action carried out without explicit invitation by a government, or backing of the United Nations. However, at a breakfast meeting with reporters in New York he also condemned the militant group, saying “they torture and decapitate.”
Arab nations that have joined the U.S. effort are seeking to halt the “radicalizing effect of the Islamic State’s military successes and zealous ideology,” Philip Stack, an analyst at U.K.-based risk forecasting company Maplecroft, said by e-mail. “These states run an increased risk of becoming targets for extremists however they will probably decide that these risks are offset by the need to roll back the militants.”
Within hours of the airstrikes, Islamic State posted online a new video showing British hostage John Cantlie, in which the photographer warned the U.S. and its allies that they were embarking on “Gulf War III,” adding that “not since Vietnam have we witnessed such a potential mess in the making.” It is unclear when the video was made.
Cantlie was kidnapped in November 2012 with the American photographer and journalist James Foley, whose murder was filmed by militants and posted on the Internet last month.
Russia condemned the U.S.-led airstrikes, saying they violated Syria’s sovereignty and would “aggravate the situation even further” in an e-mailed statement. “Moscow has repeatedly warned that those who initiated one-sided military scenarios bear full international legal responsibility for the consequences.”
Syria’s foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, warned about the “clandestine aims” of the U.S. and its allies. These were the “same countries which have conspired against Syria for more than three years,” al-Moallem said in an interview with Russian-funded television channel RT shortly before the airstrikes yesterday.
The U.S. informed Syria’s UN envoy yesterday that the strikes would take place and warned the regime of Bashar al-Assad not to engage American aircraft, Jen Psaki, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman said.
“We did not request the regime’s permission,” she said in an e-mailed statement. “We did not coordinate our actions with the Syrian government.”
While Iraq’s government has invited the U.S. and other nations to help it fight Islamic State, no such request has come from Assad, whose ouster the U.S. seeks. Syria has fractured into enclaves controlled by different militant groups since the start of an uprising against Assad’s rule in 2011.
Some U.S. allies have also shown a reluctance to extend the strikes beyond Iraq and into Syria. While France has joined the U.S. in airstrikes in Iraq, President Francois Hollande ruled out attacking Syria.
“We’re very concerned with the aspects of international law,” Hollande said last week at a press conference. “We’ve been called in by the Iraqis; we’re not called on in Syria.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told a Sept. 17 U.S. Senate hearing that in helping to defend Iraq, “you have a right of hot pursuit, you have a right to be able to attack those people who are attacking you as a matter of self-defense.”
Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Senate hearing last week that about two-thirds of Islamic State’s personnel, which the Central Intelligence Agency estimates at roughly 20,000 to 31,500, are in Syria.
The military action in a region that produces about a third of the world’s oil caused oil prices to climb. The November contract for West Texas Intermediate crude climbed as much as 1.1 percent. It was at $91.65 a barrel at 12:20 p.m. on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
Airstrikes are just the beginning of what will be needed to defeat Islamic State in what promises to be a years-long mission that ultimately will require some trained ground troops, said Michael Eisenstadt, director of the Washington Institute’s military and security studies program.
“On its own, it won’t be enough to defeat ISIS,” Eisenstadt said at yesterday’s forum, using another acronym for the group. While Obama is counting on Iraqi and moderate Syrian rebel ground troops, “our battlefield partners in Iraq and Syria are not ready yet,” Eisenstadt said.
Training a 5,000-man force of Syrian rebels could take more than six months, said James Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq who also spoke at the forum.