WASHINGTON — The U.S. military and unidentified “partner nations” early Tuesday launched a bombing campaign against Islamic State positions inside Syria, marking the first Western air raids on that country since a rebellion erupted in 2011 and turned into the civil war that gave rise to the extremist group.
The attacks used a mix of fighter, bomber and Tomahawk missiles, Pentagon spokesman Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby said in a statement released late Monday in Washington, early Tuesday in Syria.
“The decision to conduct these strikes was made earlier today by the U.S. Central Command commander under authorization granted him by the commander in chief,” the Kirby statement added.
It was not clear when President Barack Obama gave Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, Centcom’s commander, the go-ahead for the strikes or whether the president had approved the individual targets.
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The Obama administration has argued it legally can go after the militants without congressional approval under a 2001-era authorization designed for al Qaida.
The Pentagon released no other details, saying operations were ongoing and it would comment when “appropriate.” News reports, citing unnamed U.S. officials, said the attacks focused on the northern city of Raqqa, capital of the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate, where militants have carried out beheadings and other medieval punishments meted out under their merciless interpretation of Islamic law.
The spokesman for the Kobane canton, a Kurdish region in northern Syria under assault by the Islamic State, said he was unaware of any attacks on the extremists in his region. Islamic State forces in recent days have captured more than 25 villages surrounding the city of Kobane, leading to a mass exodus of some 150,000 Syrian Kurds into Turkey over a five-day period. Kobane is known as Ayn al Arab in Arabic.
There was no immediate response from Damascus, though Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government has made it clear Western air strikes, even against a mutual enemy, were unwelcome without its approval.
U.S. officials from the president on down repeatedly have said they wouldn’t give a heads up to Damascus, though Secretary of State John Kerry has left open the possibility of some level of coordination to “deconflict” possible encounters with Syrian government aircraft, which are also carrying out air strikes against the Islamic State.
The new military campaign comes just as world leaders converge on New York for the annual United Nations General Assembly. Strategies to fight the Islamic State will be a top agenda item this year, with the United States working hard to cobble together an international coalition to help out on the military, diplomatic and humanitarian fronts.
CNN and other TV news channels reported the Sunni Muslim powerhouses of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar and Jordan were among the nations “taking part” in the air campaign, which, if true, would give the Obama administration a measure of diplomatic cover for entering a conflict with deep sectarian underpinnings.
Separately, Central Command announced it launched four air strikes in Iraq ON Tuesday, hitting Islamic State targets west southwest of the now-Kurdish-held city of Kirkuk.