U.S. forces and Arab allies hit dozens of targets in Syria early Tuesday, pounding Islamic State militant sites with war planes, remote drones and ship-launched cruise missiles, officials said.
The attacks were the first time the United States hit the radical militant group in Syria, and they were the largest of their sort since President Barack Obama announced nearly two weeks ago that the U.S. would be stepping up its fight against the group.
It wasn’t immediately clear how many militants were killed Tuesday, though the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war in Syria, said at least 20 Islamic State fighters were killed in strikes that hit at least 50 targets in Raqqa and Deir al-Zor provinces in Syria’s east.
U.S. Central Command said 14 airstrikes damaged or destroyed targets in four areas of eastern Syria, including in the Islamic State group’s main stronghold of Raqqa.
Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had either participated or supported the strikes, which involved jets, bombers, drones and ships firing cruise missiles, Central Command said.
“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,” Defense Department spokesman Lt. Col. Jeff Pool told VOA.
Tuesday’s action also pitched Washington for the first time into the three-year-old Syrian civil war, which has killed 200,000 people and displaced millions. U.S. forces have previously hit Islamic State targets in Iraq, where Washington supports the government, but had held back from a military engagement in Syria, where the United States opposes President Bashar al-Assad.
Syria said that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had told the Damascus government, hours before the airstrikes took place. However, Damascus, which had said any airstrikes on Syria must have its approval, did not condemn the attacks.
“The foreign minister received a letter from his American counterpart via the Iraqi foreign minister, in which he informed him that the United States and some of its allies would target (Islamic State) in Syria,” the Foreign Ministry said in the statement. “That was hours before the raids started.”
The Sunni fighters, who have proclaimed a caliphate ruling over all Muslims, alarmed the Middle East by sweeping through northern Iraq in June. They shocked the West in recent weeks by beheading two U.S. journalists and a British aid worker, raising fears that they could attack Western countries.
Alleged plot disrupted
American forces also conducted eight airstrikes west of Aleppo against a group of former al-Qaida fighters known as the Khorasan Group. That action was in response to an “imminent” plot against U.S. and Western interests, Central Command said.
President Obama said Sept. 10 he had authorized the expanded use of airstrikes in Syria against the Islamic State. The Sunni fighters, now equipped with U.S. weapons seized during their advance in Iraq, are among the most powerful opponents of Assad, who is a member of a Shiite-derived sect.
They are also battling against rival Sunni groups in Syria, against the Shiite-led government of Iraq and against Kurdish forces on both sides of the border.
In the past week, the militants’ advance has also included Kurdish areas in northern Syria, along the Turkish border, leading to more than 130,000 people crossing into Turkey.
Before Tuesday’s attacks, the U.S. had conducted 190 airstrikes, in an effort to help Iraqi and Kurdish forces push fighters from vulnerable populations and government infrastructure.
The addition of Arab allies in the attacks was crucial for the credibility of the American-led campaign. Some 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 Shiites.
With the backing of Jordan and the Gulf states, Washington has gained the support of Sunni states that are hostile to Assad. It has not, however, won the support of Assad himself or his main regional ally, Shiite Iran.
Traditional Western allies, including Britain which went to war alongside the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, have so far declined to participate in the campaign. France has struck Islamic State in Iraq but not in Syria.
Australia welcomes strikes; Russia criticizes
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott praised the effort, saying an international effort was needed to combat the Islamic State threat. Australia has promised to contribute 600 troops and eight warplanes.
“This is a global problem,” Abbott told parliament Tuesday. “These are people who have been radicalized and brutalized, and could become potential terrorists in their home countries.”
Australian law enforcement this week conducted sweeping counter-terrorism operations in 25 locations in Sydney and Brisbane, after officials warned of imminent threats from people returning from conflicts in the Middle East. Intelligence officials have estimated 60 Australian nationals are fighting alongside radical groups.
The sweeps resulted in two people being charged with serious offenses.
In Moscow, meanwhile, Russia said the attacks they should have been agreed upon with its ally Damascus and would fuel tension in the region.
“Any such action can be carried out only in accordance with international law,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
“That implies not a formal, one-sided ‘notification’ of airstrikes but the presence of explicit consent from the government of Syria or the approval of a corresponding U.N. Security Council decision,” the statement said.
VOA’s Phil Mercer in Australia and Carla Babb at the Pentagon contributed to this report. Material from Reuters was used in this report.