WASHINGTON/DAMASCUS/JERUSALEM/BEIRUT – The United States and Arab allies unleashed bombs and Tomahawk cruise missiles on Islamic State group targets in eastern Syria early Tuesday, opening a new front in the fight against the militants, defense officials said.
The U.S. and its partners carried out at least 50 airstrikes on Islamic State targets in the Syrian provinces of Raqqa and Deir el-Zour on Tuesday, while the al Qaida-linked Nusra Front was also hit by airstrikes in northwest Syria, a group monitoring the war in Syria said.
There were unconfirmed reports that Islamic State militants recently transferred Haruna Yukawa, a 42-year-old native of Chiba, to Raqqa. He is believed to have been kidnapped by Islamic State militants in the suburbs of Aleppo, in northern Syria, in mid-August. Islamic State has yet to declare itself responsible for his detention.
Rami Abdulrahman, who runs the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said at least 20 Islamic State fighters were killed in the airstrikes. He also said Nusra Front positions had been struck in the provinces of Idlib and Aleppo in the country’s northwest.
Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates took part in the air raids, the U.S. military said, in an extraordinary show of regional solidarity against the Islamic State group that has rampaged through Syria and Iraq.
In another stunning development Tuesday, Israel’s military said it shot down a Syrian warplane over the Golan Heights — the first such incident in three decades.
Israeli military sources said the plane apparently crossed by accident into Israeli-controlled airspace over the Golan Heights — where fighting from Syria’s civil war has spilled over occasionally — and was not on a mission to attack Israeli targets. The aircraft was intercepted by a U.S.-manufactured Patriot missile, the spokesman said.
The U.S.-led air assault in Syria marked a turning point in the war against the militant group, as the Obama administration had long been reluctant to intervene in Syria’s raging civil war.
But Washington has concluded it had to act, amid fears Islamic State fighters could eventually stage terrorist attacks in Europe or the United States if left unchecked.
Syria’s Foreign Ministry said Damascus had been informed by Washington about the airstrikes.
“The Americans had informed the Syrian representative at the United Nations that strikes would be carried out against the terrorist Islamic State organization in Raqqa” in the north of the country, the ministry said, according to state television.
While Iraq’s government has invited the U.S. and other nations to help it fight Islamic State, no such request has come from Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose ouster the U.S. seeks.
“I can confirm that U.S. military and partner nation forces are undertaking military action against ISIL terrorists in Syria using a mix of fighter, bomber and Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said in a statement. ISIL is an acronym for the group’s former name.
The decision to conduct the airstrikes was undertaken Monday by the head of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Lloyd Austin, “under authorization granted him by the commander in chief,” Kirby said.
“We will provide more details later as operationally appropriate.”
The strikes focused on Islamic State positions in Raqqa, a stronghold for the Sunni extremists, according to The New York Times and other media, citing U.S. officials. Other targets struck were along the Iraq-Syria border, the newspaper said.
U.S. F-22 fighter jets, America’s most sophisticated warplane, took part in the raids as well — the first combat mission for the costly aircraft, according to the Wall Street Journal and ABC News.
The strikes — including Tomahawk missiles fired from naval warships — came less than two weeks after Obama warned that he had approved an expansion of the campaign against the Islamic State group to include action in Syria.
“I have made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are,” Obama said on Sept. 10 in a speech to the nation.
“This is a core principle of my presidency: if you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.”
Under Obama’s orders, U.S. warplanes began airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq on Aug. 8, with about 190 raids carried out against the extremists there.
Obama, however, has repeatedly promised the campaign would not involve a combat mission for U.S. ground troops in Iraq.
The American president’s strategy calls for U.S. air power combined with training and arming local forces in Iraq and “moderate” rebel fighters in Syria.
His approach has sparked criticism in Washington and the Middle East that the effort will fail without capable ground forces that can roll back the well-organized and well-financed jihadists.
Last week, Congress endorsed Obama’s plan to train and arm moderate Syrian rebels to battle the militants — part of his strategy to smash the movement that has beheaded two American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff.
Lawmakers on the left, wary of the United States plunging into another open-ended, costly war in the Middle East, have vowed to hold broad use-of-force debates later this year following the Nov. 4 midterm elections.
Airstrikes are just the beginning of what will be needed to defeat Islamic State in what promises to be a years-long mission that ultimately will require some trained ground troops, said Michael Eisenstadt, director of the Washington Institute’s military and security studies program.
“On its own, it won’t be enough to defeat ISIS,” Eisenstadt said at the forum Monday.
While Obama is counting on Iraqi and moderate Syrian rebel ground troops, “Our battlefield partners in Iraq and Syria are not ready yet,” Eisenstadt said.
Training a 5,000-man force of Syrian rebels could take more than six months, said James Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq who also spoke at the forum.
The airstrikes in Syria came as Kurdish militia fought to defend a key border town in northern Syria, after 130,000 terrified residents fled to Turkey to escape a jihadist advance.
France is the only country to have joined the U.S. airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq, where it emerged Monday that the jihadis attacked an army base west of Baghdad with six suicide bombers over the weekend, killing 40 soldiers and capturing at least 70.