UPDATE: Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby said strikes from the U.S. and Arab partners were trying to hit training facilities and headquarter buildings of the Islamic State in Syria where officials believed the terrorist group was trying to command and control their forces.
“We’re still assessing the effectiveness of these strikes, but we believe we hit what we were aiming at,” he said on MSNBC.
President Obama on Monday night authorized a major escalation of the war against the Islamic State, sending missiles and warplanes on bombing missions for the first time into Syria to strike the terrorist group’s strongholds in that country.
The Pentagon announced that both U.S. and allied pilots, along with missile-firing U.S. ships, launched their first airstrikes inside Syria after a sweeping diplomatic push by the Obama administration had secured dozens of verbal commitments from leaders around the world and in the Middle East to join the fight against the Islamic State.
The missiles and bombs began flying into Islamic State-held areas early Tuesday local time and was expected to last for the next few days, a senior Pentagon official told The Washington Times.
“We will continue to attack Islamic State targets whether they’re in Iraq or in Syria,” the official said.
The barrage also comes on the eve of President Obama’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly and two days of meetings with world leaders at the New York gathering.
Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby noted Monday night that the U.S. was not acting alone, and there were multiple reports of involvement by several Arab nations in about two dozen strikes, concentrated on the insecure Iraqi-Syrian border and on Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital.
Several news organizations specified involvement in airstrikes by Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, while CNN reported that some Jordanian special operations forces were involved in ground assaults in Syria.
All those nations are conservative Sunni monarchies that could see the Islamic State as undermining their legitimacy despite its being a Sunni group fighting one majority-Shiite regime (Iraq) and one Alawite-dominated government (Syria).
But Adm. Kirby himself said only that “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. Given that these operations are ongoing, we are not in a position to provide additional details at this time.”
Rep. Michael T. McCaul, Texas Republican and chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, praised the assault, saying “in times of war and of peace it is important that we come together as a nation.
“To defeat ISIS, we must cut off the head of the snake, which exists in Syria. I support the administration’s move to conduct airstrikes against ISIS wherever it exists,” he said.
Even before the Pentagon announcement Monday evening, though, senior administration officials were unclear on exactly what role each coalition partner will play.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry dodged that question Monday, and questions remain over whether Turkey — which has a more than 750-mile border with Syria and Iraq and has resisted joining the coalition — will join the U.S.-led effort or continue to stay on the sidelines.
Turkish diplomats have paid lip service to the American push for international action against the Islamic State, also known by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL. But with Ankara having secured the release of 49 hostages from the Islamic State under vague circumstances in recent days, analysts cite fears that the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may have cut a secret deal with the extremists that involves staying out of the U.S.-led coalition.
“There’s a lot of suspicion in Turkish public opinion right now about how the hostage deal was reached,” said Cenk Sidar, the head of Washington-based Sidar Global Advisors, a private analysis firm. “People believe there is some sort of a deal between Erdogan and ISIL.
“It seems there may have been a deal to release the hostages, but we don’t know what assurances have been given to ISIL in return,” Mr. Sidar said in an interview Monday. “Did they agree to something involving the Turkish border? Did they agree not to join the coalition against [the Islamic State]?”
Meanwhile, tensions escalated to new heights Monday along Turkey’s border with Iraq and Syria, where the Islamic State now controls a wide swath of territory.
Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtlumus claimed that some 130,000 Syrian Kurdish refugees — mostly women, children and elderly — have crossed into Turkey in the past four days, fleeing an onslaught by Islamic State militants on their villages and towns.
The situation has heightened tensions between Turkish authorities and Syrian and Iraqi Kurds. The Obama administration has been leaning heavily on Iraqi Kurds to take a lead role in ground-level combat against the Islamic State.
The Erdogan government has cited the surge of refugees as a reason to clamp down on key border crossings with Iraq and Syria. The move prompted clashes Sunday and Monday between Turkish police and angry Kurds stuck along the border. More than 100,000 displaced people from years of war in Syria are already living in camps on the Turkish side of the border.
Mr. Kerry in recent days has publicly questioned whether rogue elements inside Turkey are secretly working with Islamic State militants to transport crude oil northward across the Turkish border from Syria and Iraq for sale on the global black market, helping to finance the Islamist movement’s operations.
“There are various channels,” Mr. Kerry said Monday during an interview with MSNBC, adding that a core part of the growing U.S.-led mission is to ensure that oil “can’t move through Turkey or through Syria or out through Lebanon.”
Top Obama administration officials have provided few details on intelligence relating to the suspected Islamic State oil smuggling operation, and intelligence community sources in Washington cautioned against reading too deeply into Mr. Kerry’s remarks.
One U.S. intelligence official told The Times that “the black market in Turkey is playing an important role in giving [the Islamic State] a profitable outlet for the oil it controls,” but challenged the notion that Turkish authorities might have a role in the smuggling operation.
Further, the official said, some Iraqi Kurds may be involved in the smuggling, even as Kurdish forces are involved in fighting Islamic State militants.
“The area in Iraq where ISIL is operating is associated with long-standing oil smuggling networks which have traditionally had a Kurdish component,” the intelligence official said. “So, nobody should be surprised if there were Kurds involved in bringing ISIL-controlled oil to market.”
The official added that there are “constraints on [the Islamic State’s] ability to capitalize on the energy infrastructure it controls as it can’t sell at market prices, lacks technical expertise, and cannot operate facilities — some of which are shut down entirely — at anywhere near full capacity.”
While Mr. Kerry has repeatedly referenced the smuggling problem, he also has stressed that Turkey — long regarded as a key NATO ally and a bridge to the Middle East and Central Asia for the alliance — remains a close diplomatic friend of Washington.
Mr. Kerry said Monday that he “had a long meeting with President Erdogan” last week. He also told a Capitol Hill hearing last week that the Erdogan government’s reluctance to supporting the fight against the Islamic State might be related to the dozens of Turkish citizens held hostage in northern Iraq.
But with the hostage release, Mr. Kerry implied Monday, the Obama administration intends to mount pressure on Turkey to take a more active stand. “The proof will be in the actions,” he told MSNBC. “We’re not going to take anything to the bank on the basis of a verbal interaction.”
Mr. Kerry has spent the past three days in New York City meeting face to face with dozens of diplomatic counterparts on the periphery of the annual United Nations General Assembly gathering. He said Friday that “more than 50 countries have come forward with critical commitments” to the growing coalition.
But there has been little evidence of tangible action. On Friday, Mr. Kerry said dozens of countries had committed “almost $1 billion” to a U.N.-led humanitarian response to the crisis, and specifically cited contributions from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea.
He asserted Monday that he and others in the Obama administration are just now “beginning to put together the specific tasks that each nation” will undertake in the growing coalition.
Late last week, French warplanes began pounding Islamic State targets in northern Iraq. On Monday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said his nation will not launch any strikes inside Syria. When pressed for an explanation, he said only that Iraq’s government had requested the strikes.
Syria has not made such requests and warned weeks ago that it would not let foreign countries bomb Islamic State targets with impunity. Unlike even an uncooperative Iraq, Syria has a military capable of at least attempting resistance to outside strikes.
Mr. Kerry met one-on-one with Mr. Fabius on Sunday, but State Department officials declined to provide details about the meeting. One State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity with reporters, said only that “the bulk of the meeting was devoted to working together to build the coalition to counter” the Islamic State. Mr. Kerry met privately with British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond on Monday.