WASHINGTON – Combined U.S.-Arab airstrikes on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’s military strongholds in Syria achieved their aim of showing the extremists that their savage attacks will not go unanswered, the top American military officer said Tuesday. Separately, the U.S. launched strikes against a group said to be plotting to attack the U.S. and Western interests.
The U.S. and five Arab nations attacked the Islamic State group’s headquarters in eastern Syria in nighttime raids Monday 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 Persian Gulf. Video purporting to show a series of strikes in Raqqa surfaced on YouTube, although its authenticity has not been independently verified.
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 a network of al-Qaida veterans “with significant explosives skills,” said Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The White House said President Barack Obama would speak about the airstrikes before flying to New York on Tuesday morning for the United Nations General Assembly meeting. His remarks are expected at around 10 a.m. ET.
U.S. officials said five Arab nations either participated in the airstrikes or provided unspecified support. They were Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. Dempsey said their role was indispensable to the U.S. goal of showing that the battle to degrade and defeat the Islamic State group is not just a U.S. fight.
Dempsey called the strikes an unprecedented coalition with Arab states and said the partnering has 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 acronym for the Islamic State group whose fighters swept across much of Iraq this summer.
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. “We now have a kind of credible campaign against ISIL that includes a coalition of partners.”
It was not immediately clear exactly what role each of those nations played, but Jordan confirmed it had carried out strikes with its own fighter jets inside Syria and “destroyed a number of selected targets used by terrorist groups to dispatch their members for terrorist attacks” in Jordan.
The strikes hit targets in and around the city of Raqqa and the province with the same name, activists said. Raqqa is the militant group’s self-declared capital; it began referring to itself as simply the “Islamic State” during the summer.
“The strikes destroyed or damaged multiple ISIL targets in the vicinity of Ar Raqqah, Dayr az Zawr, Al Hasakah, and Abu Kamal and included ISIL fighters, training compounds, headquarters and command and control facilities, storage facilities, a finance center, supply trucks and armed vehicles,” CENTCOM said in a statement, using an alternate acronym for the group.
The Reuters news agency quoted a group that tracks the war as saying at least 20 ISIS fighters were killed in the strikes.
Rami Abdulrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which gathers information from a network of activists on the ground, told the agency at least 50 strikes were carried out on ISIS targets in the Syrian provinces of Raqqa and Deir el-Zour.
Video released by the U.S. Navy showed the launch of multiple Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAMs) from the guided-missile cruiser USS Philippine Sea.
Several hours after the Pentagon announced the airstrikes against Islamic State targets, U.S. Central Command said American warplanes also launched eight airstrikes “to disrupt the imminent attack plotting against the United States and Western interests” by a network of al-Qaida veterans – sometimes known as the Khorasan Group – who have established a haven in Syria. It provided no details on the plotting.
CBS News’ Bob Orr said late last week that Khorasan — a group of operatives U.S. officials say were dispatched by al Qaeda’s central command in Pakistan to try and link up the terror network’s bomb-making experts with Western jihadists who have joined the fight in Syria — was deemed a more imminent threat to the U.S. than even ISIS.
Khorasan is believed to be a subset of al Qaeda’s larger affiliated group in Syria, al-Nusra Front, which has battled against both the Assad regime and ISIS for territory in the country’s north. Al-Nusra enjoys significant popular support inside Syria, and is believed to be directly supported by some Arab Gulf states, including some listed as partners in the strikes against ISIS.
Dempsey said the decision to launch both operations simultaneously was influenced by a concern that word of strikes in eastern Syria could prompt the al-Qaida veterans to disperse. The Khorasan Group “may have scattered” if the attack missions had been done sequentially rather than simultaneously, he said.
Central Command said the bombing mission against that group was undertaken solely by U.S. aircraft and took place west of the Syrian city of Aleppo. It said targets included training camps, an explosives and munitions production facility, a communication building and command and control facilities.
According to the Syrian Observatory, citing local activists on the ground, at least 50 Nusra fighters were killed in strikes against al-Nusra in the Idlib province. The observatory said eight civilians, including two children, were also killed. It was not immediately clear, however, whether those strikes were carried out by U.S. planes, allied nations, or by the Syrian military.
Unconfirmed reports suggested airstrikes were continuing around Idlib, but it was unclear who might be carrying them out. The U.S. military confirmed only eight strikes against Khorasan “west of Aleppo to include training camps, an explosives and munitions production facility, a communication building and command and control facilities.” Idlib city is to the southwest of Aleppo, but the exact location of the U.S. strikes were not given.
The strikes were part of the expanded military campaign that Obama authorized nearly two weeks ago in order to disrupt and destroy the Islamic State militants, who have slaughtered thousands of people, beheaded Westerners – including two American journalists – and captured large swaths of Syria and northern and western Iraq.
The airstrikes began around 8:30 p.m. EDT. Central Command said the U.S. fired 47 Tomahawk cruise missiles from aboard the USS Arleigh Burke and USS Philippine Sea, operating from international waters in the Red Sea and the northern Persian Gulf. U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps fighter jets, drones and bombers also participated.
Syria’s Foreign Ministry said the U.S. informed Syria’s envoy to the U.N. that “strikes will be launched against the terrorist Daesh group in Raqqa.” The statement used an Arabic name to refer to the Islamic State group.
Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said Tuesday the strikes weren’t coordinated with the regime of President Bashar Assad, but added: “There was no resistance, no interaction with Syrian air forces or military defenses” during the operation.
In the past, Syrian officials have insisted that any strikes against ISIS in the country should come only after coordination with Damascus. Without their consent, Syrian officials have said such airstrikes would be an act of aggression against Syria and a breach of the country’s sovereignty.
However, U.S. officials ruled out direct coordination with Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government.
“In recent days, over 130,000 civilians fled from over 200 villages raided by ISIS in Syria,” the head of the U.S.-backed Syrian Opposition Coalition, or the SNC, President Hadi al-Bahra, told CBS News’ Pamela Falk. “These airstrikes may help alleviate the crisis in that area by slowing the extremists’ advances.”
But, al-Bahra stressed that “what happens after the airstrikes is critical. First, there must be a no-fly zone sustained over the areas of these strikes, so that the regime will not attack civilians in order to create chaos and blame the international coalition for civilian casualties. Additionally, working with our partners, we will accelerate plans and efforts to train and equip mainstream opposition forces to carry on the fight on the ground. And finally, we must engage on multiple fronts with the international community to put pressure on the Assad regime to step aside for a full political transition. Moderate, inclusive governance is needed to suffocate the extremists and prevent them from re-emerging.”
Russia’s foreign ministry warned Tuesday that what it called “unilateral” air strikes would destabilize the region. “The fight against terrorists in the Middle East and northern Africa requires coordinated efforts of the entire global community under the auspices of the U.N.,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.
Dempsey said Arab participation needs to extend beyond direct military roles to assisting in an international effort to undercut finances, recruiting and ideological support for the Islamic State group.
“What we’re talking about now is the beginning of an air campaign,” he said, adding that it must lead to what he called “the other air campaign” – an effort to fill public airwaves across the Muslim world with arguments for why the extremists must be defeated.
At a conference on Sept. 11 with Secretary of State John Kerry, key Arab allies promised they would “do their share” to fight the Islamic State militants. The Obama administration, which at a NATO meeting in Wales earlier this month also got commitments from European allies as well as Canada and Australia, has insisted that the fight against the Islamic State militants could not be the United States’ fight alone.
In a speech Sept. 10, Obama vowed to go after the Islamic State militants wherever they may be. His military and defense leaders told Congress last week that airstrikes within Syria are meant to disrupt the group’s momentum and provide time for the U.S. and allies to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels.
President Obama spoke with House Speaker John Boehner and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi about the strikes Monday evening, officials said. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the Senate Committee on Intelligence, was briefed by Vice President Biden earlier in the day.
The U.S. military has been launching targeted airstrikes in Iraq since August, focusing specifically on attacks to protect U.S. interests and personnel, assist Iraqi refugees and secure critical infrastructure. Last week, as part of the newly expanded campaign, the U.S. began going after militant targets across Iraq, including enemy fighters, outposts, equipment and weapons.
To date, U.S. fighter aircraft, bombers and drones have launched about 190 airstrikes within Iraq.
Urged on by the White House and U.S. defense and military officials, Congress passed legislation late last week authorizing the military to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels. Obama signed the bill into law Friday, providing $500 million for the U.S. to train about 5,000 rebels over the next year.
The militant group, meanwhile, has threatened retribution. Its spokesman, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, said in a 42-minute audio statement released Sunday that the fighters were ready to battle the U.S.-led military coalition and called for attacks at home and abroad.