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.
When President Obama spoke two weeks ago about his counter-terrorism strategy towards the Islamic State, he specifically talked about using force to target ISIS "in Syria, as well as Iraq." It was at this point that we knew it was only a matter of time before the U.S. airstrikes began inside Syria.
Last night, we learned that this phase of the campaign is now underway.
As NBC News Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel noted last night, the timing of the offensive is important: the airstrikes coincide with the United Nations General Assembly, at which world leaders will consider how best to address the ISIS threat.
There are, of course, more questions than answers, and if you missed Rachel's segment at midnight (ET), it fleshed out many of the key aspects of the debate. For example, are the U.S. airstrikes likely to have the intended effect?
Thus far, the air campaign against ISIS targets in Iraq has been constant for six weeks, but the offensive has "scarcely budged the Sunni extremists." Whether a related campaign in Syria is determinative remains an open question.
Also, to what extent is the United States acting as part of a coalition?
ISIS has been desperate to characterize the conflict as one in which the West is attacking Muslims, prompting the Obama administration to place a high priority on recruiting regional allies. To that end, U.S. Central Command said five Arab partner nations -- Jordan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates -- "participated in or supported" the broader overnight assault in Syria,
As for Syria's reaction, Syrian diplomats indicated overnight that they were made aware of the mission before its launch. This, naturally, meant the Assad regime was less likely to see this as an act of aggression -- the airstrikes were, after all, targeting the government's enemies -- which in turn meant Syria's considerable air defenses would remain grounded.
And then, of course, there's Congress, which recently decided to scrap its pre-election work schedule in order to hit the campaign trail, instead of working on authorizing a military offensive against ISIS targets. The Obama administration is apparently relying on the Bush-era AUMF as a legal basis for this campaign -- a stretch, to be sure -- but lawmakers have said they'd prefer to address the issue in detail after the midterm elections.
By any reasonable standard, this may quickly become unsustainable. With the U.S. military actively involved in combat missions abroad, the notion of our legislative branch taking a pass for a couple of months seems plainly ridiculous, and Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee, told Rachel last night that he's reached out to congressional leaders about returning to session to address the crisis.
Congressional leaders were reportedly briefed by White House officials last night -- including talks between President Obama and Speaker Boehner -- but notification and authorization are hardly the same thing.