NEW YORK // UAE fighter jets launched airstrikes early yesterday on ISIL targets in Syria.
The US-led bombing campaign marked a dramatic opening salvo against the Islamist extremists’ bases in three Syrian provinces.
“The UAE Air Force launched its first strikes against ISIL targets last evening,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said
“The operation was conducted in coordination with other forces participating in the international effort against the ISIL.”
The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain and Qatar all took part in the attacks, although some will have provided only logistical and other support.
Barack Obama said the US was “proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with these nations on behalf of our common security”, and their participation showed the US was not alone in the fight against ISIL.
“Above all, the people and governments in the Middle East are rejecting ISIL and standing up for the peace and security that the people and the region of the world deserve,” the US president said.
Later he flew to New York for the United Nations General Assembly, where he will try to persuade more countries to join his coalition against ISIL.
Last night the US secretary of state John Kerry had talks with the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, after discussing efforts to defeat ISIL with other leading Gulf Arab figures attending the General Assembly.
Unlike the 194 airstrikes the US has carried out in the sparsely populated areas of Iraq in support of Iraqi and Kurdish ground operations against ISIL, the scale of the strikes in Syria was greater and they took place in urban and rural areas.
The attack came in three waves, beginning at 4.30am UAE time, according to US military officials, and lasted several hours. First, over forty Tomahawk cruise were launched from a US destroyer, which was followed by two waves of coalition airstrikes, first on targets in northern Syria and then in the east.
The coalition attacks targeted ISIL “fighters, training compounds, headquarters and command and control facilities, storage facilities, a finance centre, supply trucks and armed vehicles” near or in ISIL’s self-declared capital, Raqqa, in the north, Deir Ezzour and Abu Kamal in the east and Hasakah in the north-east, US Central Command said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group based in Britain, reported that at least 70 ISIL militants were killed and more than 300 wounded in Raqqa and other parts of eastern Syria.
Along with the attacks on ISIL, the US alone also carried out strikes near Aleppo against a faction of Al Qaeda made up of fighters previously based in Afghanistan and Pakistan thought to be plotting terrorist attacks on US targets. US officials call the faction the Khorosan Group, though analysts say Al Qaeda itself has never publicly disclosed the group’s existence.
“The group has established a safe haven in Syria to develop external attacks, construct and test improvised explosive devices and recruit westerners to conduct operations,” Central Command said.
Strikes targeting the Khorosan group were thought to have hit a village near Aleppo, Kfar Derian, which is a base for the Al Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat Al Nusra. Nearby activists told the AP that around 12 Al Nusra fighters were killed there along with 10 civilians.
Of the five Arab countries involved in the operation, the UAE, Bahrain and Jordan said their jets carried out strikes.
“A formation of Bahrain royal air force aircraft, joining brotherly air forces from the Gulf Cooperation Council and other friendly and allied forces … bombed and destroyed several positions and selected targets belonging to terrorist organisations,” a Bahraini defence official said.
A Jordanian government official said its air force took part, and accused ISIL of trying to infiltrate Jordan through its border with Syria.
White House officials denied that the strikes were timed to coincide with Mr Obama’s push for an expanded coalition at the UN this week, where he will also urge the Security Council to pass a binding resolution that would force countries to draft laws that would stem the flow of foreign fighters.
The Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday on Tuesday welcomed the airstrikes and said Ankara could provide military or logistical support for the campaign.
“I look at it in a positive way. It would be wrong if it stopped. This roadmap should be continued,” he said.
Asked how Turkey would contribute to the operation, Mr Erdogan said: “It involves all kinds of support, including military and political. It involves political or logistic support.”
Mr Obama announced the possibility of an expanded war against ISIL into Syria two weeks ago, after the extremists beheaded two western journalists, and the strikes capped weeks of fraught internal deliberations about going after the group in Syria, which is still wracked by a brutal civil war.
The expansion of the war against ISIL into Syria probably marks the start of a drawn-out fight that could last months or years. “The overall effort will take time,” Mr Obama said. Last week, the head of the joint chiefs of staff, Gen Martin Dempsey, said the air campaign in Syria would consist of “persistent and sustainable” attacks aimed at destroying ISIL.
The strikes raise questions about the US strategy in Syria. In Iraq, the airstrikes have been carried out in coordination with the ground forces necessary to clear ISIL from territory and fill the power vacuum left in its wake. But in Syria, the US has no allied forces and lacks significant on-the-ground intelligence capabilities.
Congress last week agreed to a $500 million (Dh1.84bn) US military train-and-equip programme for vetted, more moderate rebel groups, but US officials have said it would take up to a year to train only 5,000 men to take on ISIL, who the CIA estimates has up to 30,000 fighters.
Mr Obama said yesterday the plan was moving ahead and the US would “ramp up our effort to train and equip the Syrian opposition, who are the best counterweight to ISIL and the Assad regime”.
The Syrian Opposition Coalition’s president, Hadi Al Bahra, said that while allied rebels will take part in an “accelerated” training programme, “we will also continue to battle the root cause of the extremism we face — the Assad regime”.
Some observers have said the strikes could benefit Bashar Al Assad’s regime by weakening a formidable foe, while former US officials have called on the US to work with Syrian army forces who they say are the only force capable of controlling territory after ISIL’s grip is weakened.
But the Syrian military has been badly weakened by three years of grinding conflict and recent massive losses to ISIL in Raqqa province, and US officials have said they would not coordinate with a ruler who must step down.
State department spokeswoman Jen Psaki denied Syrian claims that they were given advance notice of the strikes. “We informed the Syrian regime directly of our intent to take action” through its permanent representative to the UN, but “we did not provide advance notification to the Syrians at a military level, or five any indication of our timing”.
It is not known what effect the airstrikes will have on ISIL, whose leaders have been preparing for weeks. Reports from Raqqa suggest fighters have moved deeper into civilian areas and that the group has been transferring its sophisticated weapons and equipment.
* Additional reporting by the Associated Press