By Missy Ryan and Phil Stewart
The United States and several Gulf Arab allies launched air and missile strikes on Islamic State strongholds in Syria on Tuesday, U.S. officials said, opening a new, far more complicated front in the battle against the militants.
“I can confirm that U.S. military and partner nation forces are undertaking military action against (Islamic State) terrorists in Syria using a mix of fighter, bomber and Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles,” Rear Admiral John Kirby, Pentagon press secretary, said in a statement.
“Given that these operations are ongoing, we are not in a position to provide additional details at this time.”
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Bahrain were all involved, although their exact roles in the military action were unclear. Qatar played a supporting role in the air strikes, the official said.
Another official said at least one U.S. ship had launched surface-to-surface Tomahawk cruise missiles. Armed U.S. drones were also used in the attacks.
The targets included Raqqa city, the headquarters of Islamic State, an extremist Sunni Muslim force that has seized large expanses of territory in Iraq and Syria and proclaimed a caliphate erasing borders in the heart of the Middle East.
Syrian state television said the United States informed Syria’s U.N. representative on Monday that Islamic State targets would be hit in Raqqa, which is 400 km (250 miles) northeast of Damascus.
U.S. officials and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group that tracks violence in the Syrian war, said buildings used by the militants, their weapons supplies and checkpoints were targeted in the attacks on Raqqa. Areas along the Iraq-Syria border were also hit.
“There are tens of wounded and dead,” Rami Abdulrahman, head of the Observatory, which gathers information from a network of activists on the ground, told Reuters by phone.
The addition of Arab allies was seen as crucial for the credibility of the American-led campaign. U.S. allies in the Middle East are skeptical of how far Washington will commit to a conflict in which nearly every country in the region has a stake, set against the backdrop of Islam’s 1,300-year-old rift between Sunnis and Shi’ites.
As part of U.S. efforts to build the coalition, Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to New York at the weekend, ahead of the start of United Nations General Assembly meetings, for talks with counterparts from Arab and European allies to discuss plans to defeat Islamic State and hear their views on how they might participate.
POWERFUL AIR FORCES
On Monday, Kerry met Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal and British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, and participated in a meeting of more than a dozen countries, including Arab Gulf States, on the conflict in Libya.
A senior administration official said U.S. plans “to expand our efforts to defeat (Islamic State) were discussed without specifics” during meetings but declined to elaborate.
Several Arab states have powerful air forces, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Saudi Arabia has also already agreed to host U.S. training of Syrian opposition fighters.
But many Gulf Arab states have been reluctant to be seen aggressively joining the U.S. campaign, fearing in some cases reprisals by extremists or forces loyal to the Syrian government.
The strikes took place hours before Obama goes to New York for the U.N. General Assembly where he will try to rally more nations behind his drive to aggressively take on Islamic State.
Obama had shied away from getting involved in Syria’s civil war a year ago, seeing no positive outcome for the United States, but the rise of Islamic State and the beheading of two American captives forced him to change course.
General Lloyd Austin, commander of the U.S. military’s Central Command, made the decision to conduct the strikes under authorization granted to him by Obama, Kirby said.
“We will provide more details later as operationally appropriate,” Kirby said.