US military launches air strikes against Isil in Syria
Pentagon confirms that US and 'partner nation forces' have commenced bombing raids against Islamic State extremists in Syria
The US and its allies launched a fresh offensive against the fighters of the Islamic State (Isil) last night striking targets in Syria for the first time using cruise missiles, drones as well as warplanes.
The attacks, which opened with a barrage of cruise missiles from US navy warships, represent a major escalation of Mr Obama’s war against Isil, and come after nearly two weeks of intensive US coalition-building in the Middle East, led by John Kerry the US secretary of state.
An US AV-8B Harrier jet launching from the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island (US NAVY / Christopher Lindahl/EPA)
The strikes, which included contributions from as yet officially unspecified “partner nations” were announced by the Pentagon late last night and were concentrated around the city of Raqqa, the militants’ main stronghold close to the border with Iraq.
However, a US official, speaking to the Reuters news agency on condition of anonymity, said that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Bahrain were involved although their exact roles in the military action were unclear. Qatar played a supporting role in the air strikes, the official said, in what is an unprecedented and unexpected show of regional solidarity against the Isil group that has rampaged through Syria and Iraq.
“US military and partner nation forces have begun striking Isil targets in Syria using mix of fighters, bombers and Tomahawk missiles,” said Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary.
France has already openly joined the US strikes in Iraq, with the New York Times reporting that “several Arab allies” had participated in the strikes against targets that included “weapons supplies, depots, barracks and buildings the militants use for command and control.” Mr Kerry has so far refused to specify which US Arab allies have offered direct military support, but had promised that Middle Eastern nations had indicated they were prepared to strike.
The US has sought global and regional legitimacy for its mission to “degrade and destroy” the Isil movement which is responsible for atrocities including public decapitations, crucifixions and the mass-execution of prisoners.
The assault came as Barack Obama travelled to New York today to attend the UN General Assembly where he will chair a meeting calling for an international agreement to curb foreign fighters from joining jihadist militants in Iraq and Syria.
The decision to conduct the air strikes was undertaken earlier on Monday by the head of US Central Command, General Lloyd Austin, “under authorisation granted him by the commander in chief,” Adam Kirby said. “We will provide more details later as operationally appropriate.”
Syria's foreign ministry said Damascus had been informed by Washington about the imminent air strikes.
"The Americans had informed the Syrian representative at the United Nations that strikes would be carried out against the terrorist IS organisation in Raqa," in the north of the country, said the ministry, according to state television.
Coming on the eve of the UN General Assembly in New York, the strikes carried the an element of surprise. Obama administration officials had previously indicated that a sustained assault on Isil would come only once moderate sufficient numbers of Syrian rebel fighters had been trained to hold ground taken by US air power.
Until now US and French strikes have been confined to Iraq and limited to hitting a relatively small number of specific targets, however officials last night said that the attack on Raqqa represented a qualitative shift towards a sustained bombardment designed to degrade Isil capabilities in the area.
Raqqa has become the informal capital of the Isil’s self-proclaimed caliphate and is in the region where several foreign hostages, including two US journalists and the British aid worker David Haines, were held before they were beheaded in gruesome circumstances earlier this month.
US generals have said about two-thirds of the estimated 31,000-strong Islamic State fighting force were based in Syria where the US has been flying intelligence gathering missions for some weeks now, building up a growing target list.
“We will be prepared to strike ISIL targets in Syria that degrade Isil's capabilities,” General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a US senate hearing last week, adding the attacks would be “persistent and sustainable”.
Chuck Hagel, the US defence secretary, had said that the plan included targeted actions against Isil safe havens in Syria, including its "command and control logistics capabilities and infrastructure."
US F-22 fighter jets, America's most sophisticated warplane, took part in the raids - the first combat mission for the costly aircraft, according to the Wall Street Journal and ABC News.