Damascus (AFP) — The United States and its Arab allies unleashed deadly bomb and missile strikes on jihadists in Syria on Tuesday, opening a new front in the battle against the Islamic State group.
Dozens of IS and Al-Qaeda militants were reported to have been killed in the raids, which Washington said had partly targeted extremists plotting an “imminent attack” against the West.
Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates joined the U.S.-led operation, which involved fighter jets, bombers, drones and Tomahawk missiles fired from U.S. warships.
The strikes marked a turning point in the war against IS militants, who have seized swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq, and declared an Islamic “caliphate”.
The fact that the five Arab nations joining the strikes are Sunni-ruled will also be of crucial symbolic importance in the fight against the Sunni extremists of IS.
Washington had been reluctant to intervene in Syria’s raging civil war, but was jolted into action as the jihadists captured more territory and committed atrocities including the beheadings of three Western hostages.
President Bashar al-Assad’s regime gave a muted initial response, saying it had been notified in advance of the strikes and supported “any international effort” against the jihadists.
The Pentagon said the raids had destroyed or damaged IS fighter positions, training compounds, command centers and armed vehicles in the jihadist stronghold of Raqa and near the border with Iraq.
– ‘Huge impact’ –
An anti-regime activist in Raqa, Abu Yusef, said that IS had redeployed its fighters in response.
“The impact of the strikes has been huge,” he told AFP via the Internet.
The jihadists “are focused on trying to save themselves now,” he added.
The raids prompted many residents to run from their homes, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group.
“Civilians who live near IS positions across Syria have fled,” director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.
It follows a recent exodus of tens of thousands of residents into neighboring Turkey in response to a jihadist assault on a strategic Kurdish town in northern Syria.
IS militants have warned the U.S.-led campaign would be met with a harsh response, and an IS-linked Algerian group on Monday threatened to kill a French hostage within 24 hours if Paris did not end its participation in air strikes in Iraq.
The group said it was responding to an IS call to kill Westerners whose nations are among 50 countries that have joined the campaign to battle the jihadist group.
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls ruled out negotiation and said Paris would continue its air strikes.
-‘Al-Qaeda plot’ –
Washington said it launched 14 strikes — including 47 Tomahawk missiles — against IS targets around the jihadist stronghold of Raqa, as well as in Deir Ezzor, Albu Kamal and Hasakeh on the border with Iraq.
Its five Arab allies “participated in or supported” the attacks. Jordan and Bahrain said they deployed warplanes.
Four air strikes were also conducted Monday in neighboring Iraq, the Pentagon said, bringing the total number of U.S. raids in that country to 194.
In Syria, eight strikes were carried out on a group of “seasoned Al-Qaeda” veterans to disrupt “imminent attack plotting against the United States and Western interests”, the Pentagon said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 50 Al-Qaeda militants were killed, as well as more than 70 members of IS.
Eight civilians, including three children, were also among the dead, it said.
The new strikes came less than two weeks after U.S. President Barack Obama warned that he had approved an expansion of the campaign against the IS group to include action in Syria.
Obama was preparing to give his first public remarks on the raids from the White House at 10:00 am (1400 GMT) on Tuesday, a U.S. official said.
Washington has said the goal of the strikes is to degrade the group’s capabilities so it can be taken on by local ground forces including the Iraqi army and moderate Syrian rebels, who are to be trained and equipped by the coalition.
Syria’s opposition — which had pleaded for the strikes — welcomed the new raids, but urged sustained pressure on Assad’s government.
“This war cannot be won by military means alone,” National Coalition president Hadi al-Bahra said.
In a separate incident on Tuesday, Israel downed a Syrian fighter jet over the Golan Heights, indicating that it had crossed a ceasefire line into the Israeli-occupied sector.
Israeli army radio said it was apparently a MiG-21 which was shot down by a surface-to-air Patriot missile, with the wreckage landing on the Syrian-controlled side of the plateau.
AFP Photo/Mohammed al-Shaikh
Interested in more political news and analysis? Sign up for our daily email newsletter.