U.S. Begins Airstrikes Inside Syria

The Obama administration and an array of Arab allies have begun hitting dozens of Islamic States targets inside Syria, expanding an air campaign against what Washington sees as the most powerful Islamist militants in the world.


Capping months of tense internal deliberations, the Obama administration and an array of Arab allies launched a broad series of airstrikes against Islamic State targets inside Syria, opening a new — and risky — front in the expanding U.S.-led effort against the militants controlling large portions of both Syria and Iraq.

The Obama administration has been signaling for weeks that it was prepared to hammer militants inside Syria, and the campaign finally began late Monday night, Sept. 22, with what the Pentagon described as a "mix of fighter, bomber, and Tomahawk land attack missiles." In a statement, Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said Gen. Lloyd Austin, the head of U.S. Central Command, made the decision to launch the airstrikes earlier in the day after receiving authorization from President Barack Obama. The American strikes, launched by air and by sea, also involved armed Predator and Reaper drones.

"I can confirm that U.S. military and partner nation forces are undertaking military action against ISIL terrorists in Syria," Kirby said. "Given that these operations are ongoing, we are not in a position to provide additional details at this time."

Obama is expected to speak about the strikes tomorrow morning at the United Nations, according to a senior U.S. official. In all, the United States and its allies conducted 14 strikes against Islamic State targets, including command and control facilities, training compounds, headquarters, storage facilities, a finance center, and supply trucks and armed vehicles, U.S. Central Command said in a statement. The aircraft hit targets in the vicinity of Raqqa, the militant group’s headquarters, as well as Deir Ezzor, Al-Hasakah, and Abu Kamal. 

In a major win for the Obama administration’s diplomatic efforts to build a broad anti-Islamic State coalition, aircraft from several Arab countries, including the United Arab Emirates, also took part in the strikes. An Arab diplomat familiar with the matter said the strikes were being carried out by aircraft from the UAE, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. Most of the nations were flying U.S.-made F-16s. The diplomat said Qatar was flying airplanes but not actually dropping any bombs.

The U.S. also conducted strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq. And in a significant expansion of the armed conflict, American planes launched eight strikes against west of Aleppo against the Khorasan Group, a terrorist organization run by al Qaeda veterans that intelligence officials say poses a potential threat to the domestic United States. The strikes were taken "to disrupt imminent attack plotting against the United States and Western interests," U.S. Central Command said. Only American airplanes attacked the group, hitting training camps, an explosives and munitions production facility, a communications building, and command and control facilities. 

Significantly, no European countries took part in any of the Syria strikes — a reflection of the deep reluctance many American allies have about getting involved in Syria amid the country’s brutal, years-long civil war.

Indeed, on Sept. 11, one day after Obama spoke to the nation and promised that "America will lead a broad coalition" against the Islamic State, Germany and Turkey announced that they wouldn’t take part in any airstrikes in Syria. The administration spent the next few weeks insisting that other nations had signed onto the battle, but officials refrained from any announcement, they said to let each nation come forward on its own to describe its contribution. Then, on Monday, Sept. 22, France announced it would not join the air campaign in Syria, just four days after the country launched its first airstrikes on the Islamic State in Iraq.

The White House itself had long tried to avoid getting involved in Syria; last year, Obama said that any use of chemical weapons by Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad would cross a "red line" and bring about a U.S. military response. Assad went ahead with just such an attack, but the administration held off on carrying out a retaliatory strike, infuriating key allies across the region. Obama himself also overruled his war cabinet and personally vetoed the idea of arming Syria’s moderate rebels, a move that may have helped lead to the rise of the Islamic State, which overran northern Iraq and took large quantities of U.S.-made armaments and ammunition.

Arab allies, who fear the Islamic State (also known as ISIS and ISIL) could eventually destabilize their own countries as well, weren’t as reluctant to join in the type of strikes inside Syria that American military officials said were vital to defeating the militants.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said as early as August that defeating the Islamic State would require eradicating the group’s hideouts in Syria. "We still haven’t addressed the issue of ISIS in Syria," he told USA Today. "That’s an important part of this, and that has yet to be addressed."

Thirteen days ago, Obama himself announced the beginning of a broad campaign to target ISIS that he said would involve military strikes against its strongholds inside Iraq and, if necessary, inside Syria as well.

"I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq," Obama said then. "This is a core principle of my presidency: If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven."

Last week, meanwhile, Dempsey gave the clearest picture yet of how the strikes would play out: Unlike the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the campaign would be less about "shock and awe" than focused, "persistent and sustainable" attacks meant to destroy the Islamic State fighters, he said.

That covers the air war. But the administration’s current plan to destroy the Islamic States relies on a ground offensive, as well. Iraqi and Kurdish fighters will attack the militants in Iraq. But a band of U.S.-trained and armed Syrian rebels will conduct the ground war in Syria. The United States may provide vital air support and cover, but it’s unclear how closely that operation will be dictated by the White House.

On September 17, the Wall Street Journal reported that President Obama would tightly control a future U.S. air campaign in Syria, personally signing off on individual strikes. But the next day, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the report was "not true," noting that once he approves an air campaign, the president gives authority to military leaders to carry out that policy. The point was quickly reaffirmed by White House press Secretary Josh Earnest.

"What the president has done in Iraq and what he will do in Syria is lay out clear guidelines for what the president envisions for our military planning and he will authorize, or put in place, guidelines that the military can use to carry out these operations," Earnest said. "There are more than 160 airstrikes that have been carried out in Iraq. The president did not sign off on each of those 160 airstrikes individually."

With a small band of rebels on the ground and a limited coalition fighting from the air, the Obama administration finds itself in the awkward position of relying on Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad to help take the fight to the Islamic State. The United States had insisted that it would not coordinate airstrikes or ground attacks with the Syrian government, despite persistent speculation that the two countries were sharing intelligence about Islamic State fighters’ locations.

But that hasn’t stopped Iraqi officials from meeting with the embattled Syrian president about their own progress in the fight against the Islamic State. The Obama administration and its Western allies may be swearing off any collaboration with the Syrian regime. But if one of America’s essential partners in the ground war is willing to cozy up to Assad, Obama may be forced to go to war with him one way or another.

This article has been updated.

 Twitter: @shaneharris
Kate Brannen is deputy managing editor at Just Security and a contributor to Foreign Policy, where she previously worked as a senior reporter. Twitter: @K8brannen

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