The U.S. military and unidentified “partner nations” early Tuesday launched a bombing campaign against Islamist positions inside Syria, marking the first Western air raids on that country since a rebellion erupted there in 2011.
The attacks used a mix of fighters, bombers and Tomahawk missiles, Pentagon spokesman Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby said in a statement that was released late Monday in Washington, early Tuesday in Syria.
Syria said the United States advised it of the attacks through its ambassador to the United Nations before they took place.
Kirby did not identify the targets, but activists inside Syria said they included not only positions belonging to the Islamic State, but also bases in three provinces of its chief jihadi rival, the al Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front. U.S. officials have long worried that hitting just the Islamic State would end up empowering other entities the U.S. did not want to strengthen, including Nusra and the government of President Bashar Assad.
“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.
The Obama administration has argued that it legally can go after the militants without congressional approval under a 2001-era authorization that was designed for al Qaida.
Word of the attacks came as the Islamic State posted the second in what it says will be a series of videos featuring British hostage John Cantlie, who was abducted in northern Syria in November 2012.
In the new video, Cantlie refers to himself as “the British citizen abandoned by his government and a long time prisoner of the Islamic State.” In the 5-minute and 55-second video, Cantlie, dressed in an orange jumpsuit similar to those worn by Americans James Foley and Steven Sotloff and Briton David Haines when they were beheaded, cites former CIA analyst Michael Scheuer’s criticism of Obama administration policy in arguing that the West is embarking on a war against the Islamic State that it cannot possibly win.
The Pentagon released no other details of the Syria strikes, saying that operations were ongoing and that it would comment when “appropriate.”
News reports, citing unnamed U.S. officials, said the attacks focused on the northern city of Raqqa, the 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.
Activists reached in Raqqa reported that the airstrikes were concentrated near the Islamic State’s main headquarters in the city, which formerly was the seat of the provincial government before the Islamic State seized the capital a year ago. The activists said the sounds of warplanes could be heard clearly.
Activists also reported airstrikes near Tabga, at a military base in Ein Essa and also near Tal Abyad, an Islamist State-held town on the border with Turkey.
Nusra targets included four buildings near the town of Kafr Daryan in Idlib province, bases west of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, and a location in Hama province, activists reported.
There were also reports that 10 civilians were killed when a bomb destroyed a two-story building where people displaced by the war were housed.
The spokesman for the Kobane canton, a Kurdish region in northern Syria currently 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.
Assad’s government has made it clear that Western air strikes, even against a mutual enemy, were unwelcome without its approval. There was no confirmation from the United States that the Syrian government was told of the strikes in advance.
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 City 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 that the Sunni Muslim powerhouses of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates 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 that it had launched four air strikes in Iraq Tuesday, hitting Islamic State targets west-southwest of the now-Kurdish-held city of Kirkuk. Those strikes brought to 190 the number of air attacks the U.S. has undertaken in Iraq since Obama first authorized them Aug. 7.
Mark Seibel in Washington and Roy Gutman and special correspondent Mousab Alhamadee in Reyhanli, Turkey, contributed to this report.