WASHINGTON — The one-two-three punch of American and Arab airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq was just the beginning, President Barack Obama and other leaders declared Tuesday. They promised a sustained campaign showcasing a rare U.S.-Arab partnership aimed at Muslim extremists.
At the same time, in fresh evidence of how the terrorist threat continues to expand and mutate, the U.S. on its own struck a new al-Qaida cell that the Pentagon said was “nearing the execution phase” of a direct attack on the U.S. or Europe.
“This is not America’s fight alone,” Obama said of the military campaign against the Islamic State group. “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 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. Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon’s press secretary, said four of the five had participated in the strikes, with Qatar playing a supporting role.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Turkey, too, is joining the coalition against the Islamic State group and “will be very engaged on the front lines of this effort.” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in New York for U.N. meetings, said he was considering expanding support of NATO operations against the Islamic State to include military involvement.
In all, Kerry said, more than 50 nations are allied in the fight.
It was a measure of the gravity of the threat and the complex politics of the problem that Syrian President Bashar Assad gave an indirect nod of approval to the airstrikes in his own country, saying he supported “any international anti-terrorism effort.” There has been concern among U.S. officials that any strikes against militants fighting Assad could be seen as inadvertently helping the leader whom Obama wants to see ousted from power.
Monday night, in three waves of attacks launched over four hours, the U.S. and its Arab partners made more than 200 airstrikes against roughly a dozen militant targets in Syria, including Islamic State headquarters, training camps and barracks as well as targets of the rival Nusra Front, al-Qaida’s branch within Syria. The first wave, conducted by the U.S. alone, focused mostly on a shadowy network of al-Qaida veterans known as the Khorasan Group, based in northwestern Syria.
“We’ve been watching this group closely for some time, and we believe the Khorasan group was nearing the execution phase of an attack either in Europe or the homeland,” said Lt. Gen. William Mayville, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The group is known to be working with the Yemeni branch of al-Qaida to recruit foreign fighters with Western passports and explosives to target U.S. aviation.
Pentagon officials released photos and video showing strikes on rooftop communications equipment at an Islamic State finance centre in Raqqa, the group’s self-declared capital in Syria. Another showed damage to a command-and-control building in the same city. A third showed damage in a residential area along the Syrian-Iraqi border that had been used as a training site for fighters.
A Syrian activist group reported that dozens of Islamic State fighters were killed in the strikes, but the numbers could not be independently confirmed. Several activists also reported at least 10 civilians killed.
Even as the military was still assessing the full impact of the strikes, U.S. officials pledged that they were just the beginning: Obama said simply the effort would take time, with challenges ahead. Mayville promised “a credible and sustainable persistent campaign to degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State.
The participation of the Arab nations marked an unusual public convergence of interests between the United States and its Sunni Arab partners against the Sunni Islamic State group. Each of the five had privately supported U.S. action, but until now had shied away from overt military co-operation against the militants, fearing reprisals. Each of the nations faces threats from militant Sunnis, but they all also harbour fears of growing assertiveness in the region by Iran, which is largely a Shiite country.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the top American military leader, called the coalition unprecedented and said the partnering had set the stage for a broader international campaign against the extremists.
“We wanted to make sure that ISIL 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. ISIL is an alternate name for the Islamic State group whose fighters swept across much of Iraq this summer.
Said Kerry in New York: “We are going to do what is necessary to take the fight to ISIL, to begin to make clear that terrorism, extremism does not have a place in the building of civilized society.”
The president got 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” the Islamic State group. Mindful that Americans are weary after two prolonged wars in the region, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the participation of the Arab nations in the coalition and the president’s pledge not to use U.S. ground forces in combat “are clear evidence that President Obama will not repeat the mistakes of the past.”
Senior administration officials said Obama had the legal authority to take the action under an Authorization for Use of Military Force that Congress passed in the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power had informed Syria of its intent to take action but did not request the Assad government’s permission.
Syria’s two key allies, Iran and Russia, condemned the strikes. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called them illegal. Russia said “unilateral” U.S. airstrikes were destabilizing the region and urged Washington to secure either Damascus’ consent or U.N. Security Council support.