Scores of Islamic State jihadists were killed Tuesday when U.S. warplanes and cruise missiles pounded the group's Syrian heartland as U.S. President Barack Obama escalated a borderless war against terrorists.
"This is not America's fight alone," Mr. Obama said, publicly extolling the handful of Arab countries joining the U.S.-led air strikes that unleashed a rain of death and destruction in and around Raqqa, the eastern Syrian city the black-clad Sunni extremists have declared the capital of a proto-caliphate that now stretches to the gates of Baghdad.
In a letter Tuesday to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the Obama administration said the air strikes on the territory of another member state were justified because Damascus was "unwilling or unable to prevent the use of its territory" by Islamic State.
"Accordingly, the United States has initiated necessary and proportionate military actions in Syria in order to eliminate the ongoing threat," read the letter, obtained by Reuters. Syria was informed just before the attacks but U.S. officials did not seek its permission.
However, the U.S. informed Iran in advance of its intention to strike Islamic State militants in Syria and assured Tehran that it would not target the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a senior Iranian official told Reuters.
Mr. Obama, who will spend the next two days on the world stage at the United Nations General Assembly in New York hopes to rally international support for a new anti-terrorist campaign, stir the global conscience about Africa's Ebola outbreak and set new goals for curbing greenhouse gases.
"Last night's strikes are the beginning of a credible and sustainable, persistent campaign to degrade and ultimately destroy" the Islamic State, said Lieutenant-General William Mayville, the Pentagon's director of operations. Asked how long such a war might last, Gen. Mayville replied: "It would be in terms of years."
Mr. Obama, who came to power vowing to pull U.S. forces out of Iraq, has a pressing political need to underplay the role the U.S. military plays in the new and escalated conflict.
"We were joined in this action by our friends and partners – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Bahrain and Qatar," the President pointed out only hours after the first of more than 40 cruise missiles fired from U.S. warships slammed into targets deep inside Syria. They were followed by U.S. warplanes from land bases and from the USS George H.W. Bush, deployed in the Persian Gulf. Remotely piloted Predator and Reaper drones armed with Hellfire missiles also attacked, according to the Pentagon.
"America is proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with these nations," the Mr. Obama said of the Arab nations, making no mention of Western allies, including Canada, Australia and France.
The five Arab countries – all majority Sunni states – were far more circumspect in announcing their roles in waging war against fellow Sunnis.
Typical was Jordan's official announcement, which made no mention of the United States, Syria or the Islamic State. "Unfortunately, border violations have increased significantly over the past two months, forcing the armed forces to implement air strikes on a number of sites controlled by some of the terrorist groups as launch pads for their operations against Jordanian territory," it said.
Saudi Arabia, the richest and most powerful Sunni state, said its "air forces took part in military operations in Syria against the Islamic State group," but it gave no indication whether its fighter-bombers actually struck targets.
A statement from Bahrain, home port to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, vaguely announced its aircraft conducted, along with "those of allied and friendly countries, air strikes against a number of selected targets of terrorist groups and organizations, and destroyed them."
The cloudy ambiguity emanating from Arab capitals stood in sharp contrast to Mr. Obama's portrayal of the coalition as a willing and open effort by more than 40 countries to, in his words, "degrade and destroy" the Islamic State.
"The people and governments in the Middle East are rejecting ISIL and standing up for the peace and security that the people of the region and the world deserve" Mr. Obama said in a short statement, using an earlier name for the militants, before flying to New York for the climate change summit.
Turkey, a key front-line state, struggling to cope with hundreds of thousands of refugees, endorsed the escalation into Syria of the U.S.-led war.
Turkey will provide political and logistics support for the attacks, said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The wave of air strikes, launched after midnight Syrian time, amounted to the opening shots of a widening war.
"The overall effort will take time, there will be challenges ahead but we're going to do what's necessary to take the fight to this terrorist group," Mr. Obama said. "We will not tolerate safe havens for terrorists who would threaten our people," he added, saying he was keen to build a broad international coalition to battle terrorism and Islamist extremism.
Syria, where the embattled regime of Bashar al-Assad has resorted to chemical weapons and indiscriminate bombing of civilian centres in a three-year-long war to crush rebels, welcomed the U.S. air strikes.
"The Syrian Arab Republic stands with any international effort to fight terrorism, no matter what a group is called – whether Daesh or Nusra Front or something else," it said, using a pejorative Arabic name for Islamic State.
Syria is "not part of the alliance. But there is a common enemy," said a Syrian analyst on the state-controlled TV station run by the Assad regime, suggesting Damascus was pleased to see U.S. warplanes attacking its enemies.
Widening the war on terrorists to Syria creates significant political complexities for Mr. Obama. Barely a year ago, the President was threatening air strikes against the Assad regime for using chemical weapons against civilians but he quickly dropped the idea in the face of scant domestic support and Russian objections.
On Tuesday, he said the $500-million (U.S.) approved last week by Congress to fund training of moderate Sunni rebels was intended not only to provide the boots on the ground to complement U.S. air power against Islamic State but also to supplant the Assad regime.
The overnight strikes hit 14 Islamic State targets, among them, "ISIL fighters, training compounds, headquarters and command and control facilities, storage facilities, a finance centre, supply trucks and armed vehicles," said U.S. Central Command.
A second, separate set of attacks – conducted solely by U.S. warplanes and cruise missiles – struck targets near Aleppo, Syria's second-largest city which has been the scene of some of the heaviest fighting in the country's ongoing civil war. Those attacks were aimed at an al-Qaeda affiliate called the Khorasan Group which, U.S. officials claim, had been in the final stages of plotting an attack against targets in the United States or in Europe.
According to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights more than 100 people, most of them militants but including some civilians, were killed in the first night of air strikes.
"Going forward, we won't hesitate to take action against these terrorists in Iraq or in Syria," Mr. Obama told Americans before the attacks were launched in Syria. But he promised a war-weary U.S. public that he "won't commit our troops to fighting another ground war in Iraq, or in Syria."
Instead, the President has promised: "We will use our air power. We will train and equip our partners. We will advise and we will assist. And we'll lead a broad coalition of nations who have a stake in this fight. This isn't America vs. ISIL. This is the people of that region vs. ISIL. It's the world vs ISIL," he said, referring to the group by its old name, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.