The United States and a broad coalition of Arab partners launched a predawn attack on Islamist fighters in Syria, the Pentagon announced Monday, using bombers and cruise missiles in the first such strike on the Middle Eastern country that has been riven for two years by a catastrophic civil war. The strikes – part of a U.S. plan to hit up to 20 targets in and around Raqqa, Syria, where the militants have their headquarters – mark a major escalation in the American military campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which previously had been limited to Iraq.
“I can confirm that U.S. military and partner nation forces are undertaking military action against [ISIS] terrorists in Syria using a mix of fighter, bomber and Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a statement. “Given that these operations are ongoing, we are not in a position to provide additional details at this time.”
“The decision to conduct theses strikes was made earlier today by the U.S. Central Command commander under authorization granted him by the commander in chief,” the Pentagon statement continued. “We will provide more details later as operationally appropriate.”
NBC News reports that the 20 targets the U.S. military plans to attack include ISIS headquarters, logistics, fuel and weapons depots, troop encampments, training sites, and command and control centers. The bombing began at approximately 8:30 p.m. ET Monday (3:30 a.m. Tuesday in Syria) a senior U.S. defense official said.
President Obama announced earlier this month that he had authorized expanded airstrikes in Iraq and Syria against ISIS, the brutal terrorist militia that has conquered large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria and killed thousands of people in its self-professed campaign to recreate an Islamic caliphate.
The broad strategy outlined by the president included airstrikes aimed at destroying the militants and increased aid to the Iraqi government, Kurdish forces, and moderate Syrian rebels fighting ISIS. President Obama has repeatedly emphasized that he will not deploy U.S. troops to combat the militants directly, but will instead rely on airstrikes and coordination with regional partners on the ground.
Sources with knowledge of the strikes in Syria say the Arab nations providing operational assistance to the U.S. are Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Jordan and Qatar, NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell reports.
The airstrikes in Syria come just hours before the president is expected to address world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Tuesday.
President Obama discussed the strikes Monday evening with Reps. John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), according to spokespersons for the Speaker and House Minority Leader. Spokespeople say Vice President Joe Biden spoke with Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Co-Chair Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), and that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke with House Armed Services Committee Chair Buck McKeon (R-Calif.).
“Our men and women in uniform are once again striking an enemy that threatens our freedom,” Rep. McKeon said in a statement after speaking with Secretary Hagel. “I pray for their safety and the success of the mission. This is one step in what will be a long fight against ISIL. With strong coalition partners, a capable military, and a clear mission; it is a fight we can win.”
The U.S. military has launched more than 150 airstrikes against Islamist militants in Iraq so far, but the military strikes against the group in neighboring Syria are the first such attacks by the U.S. in that country.
One year ago, Obama considered but then rejected a plan to attack the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad, even after evidence emerged that the government there had violated international law by firing chemical weapons on civilians. Tuesday morning, Syrian state television reported that American officials informed Syria’s U.N. representative earlier on Monday that airstrikes against ISIS in Syria territory could be imminent.
Now the United States and a loose-knit coalition that Secretary of State John Kerry said includes as many as 50 nations are fighting Assad’s enemies – ISIS militants who share the U.S. goal of replacing the Syrian dictator but are also fighting to prevent any secular leadership across Syria and Iraq.
The United Nations estimates that more than 3 million Syrians have been displaced by the civil war that erupted following a 2011 uprising against Assad.