US, Arab allies strike IS jihadists in Syria

2014-09-23 22:30
(Royal Bahraini Air Force)

(Royal Bahraini Air Force)

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Damascus - The United States and its Arab allies unleashed deadly bomb and missile strikes on jihadists in Syria on Tuesday, opening a new front in the battle against the Islamic State group.

Dozens of ISIS and al-Qaeda militants were reported to have been killed in the raids, which Washington said had partly targeted extremists plotting an "imminent attack" against the West.

Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates joined the operation, which involved fighter jets, bombers, drones and Tomahawk missiles fired from US warships.

"The strength of this coalition makes it clear to the world that this is not America's fight alone," said President Barack Obama, who had already launched strikes against ISIS militants in neighbouring Iraq.

"It must be clear to anyone who would plot against America and try to do Americans harm that we will not tolerate safe havens for terrorists who threaten our people," he added.

The Pentagon described the strikes as "very successful".

It said they hit targets including ISIS fighter positions, training compounds, command centres and armed vehicles in the jihadist stronghold of Raqa and near the border with Iraq.

The raids marked a turning point in the war against ISIS militants, who have seized swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq, and declared an Islamic "caliphate".

The fact that the five Arab nations joining the strikes are Sunni-ruled will also be of crucial symbolic importance in the fight against the Sunni extremists of ISIS.

Washington had been reluctant to intervene in Syria's raging civil war, but was jolted into action as the jihadists captured more territory and committed atrocities including the beheadings of three Western hostages.

The United States said it had not requested Syria's permission for the strikes or given advance notice "at a military level".

Even so, President Bashar Assad said that Damascus supported any international effort "to fight against terrorism", state media reported.

About 191 000 people have been killed since an uprising against Assad erupted in 2011, escalating into a brutal civil war that brought jihadists streaming into the country.

'Huge impact'

An anti-regime activist in Raqa, Abu Yusef, said that ISIS had redeployed its fighters in response.

"The impact of the strikes has been huge," he told AFP via the internet.

The jihadists "are focused on trying to save themselves now", he added.

The raids prompted many residents to run from their homes, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group.

"Civilians who live near ISIS positions across Syria have fled," director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

It follows a recent exodus of tens of thousands of residents into neighbouring Turkey in response to a jihadist assault on a strategic Kurdish town in northern Syria.

ISIS militants have warned of retaliation to the strikes and Algerian extremists on Monday threatened to kill a French hostage within 24 hours unless Paris halts air raids in Iraq.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls ruled out negotiation and rejected their demand.

'Al-Qaeda plot'

Washington said it launched 14 strikes against ISIS targets around the jihadist stronghold of Raqa, as well as in Deir Ezzor, Albu Kamal and Hasakeh on the border with Iraq.

The raids were believed to have killed a group of al-Qaeda "veterans" - known as Khorasan - plotting to attack the United States and Western interests, the Pentagon said.

The strikes targeted their training camps, an explosives and munitions production site, a communication building and a command and control centre, it said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 50 al-Qaeda militants were killed, as well as more than 70 members of ISIS.

Eight civilians, including three children, were also among the dead, it said.

Several air strikes were also conducted Monday in Iraq, the Pentagon said, bringing the total number of US raids in that country to 194.

Washington has said the goal of the strikes is to weaken ISIS so it can be taken on by local ground forces including the Iraqi army and moderate Syrian rebels, who are to be trained and equipped by the coalition.

Syria's opposition - which had pleaded for the strikes - welcomed the new raids, but urged sustained pressure on Assad's government.

"This war cannot be won by military means alone," National Coalition president Hadi al-Bahra said.

In a separate incident on Tuesday, Israel downed a Syrian fighter jet over the Golan Heights, indicating that it had crossed a ceasefire line into the Israeli-occupied sector.

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