October 22, 2021

U.S. begins airstrikes against Islamic State in Syria

The U.S. military expanded its war against the Islamic State late Monday by sending waves of warplanes and launching Tomahawk missiles into Syria to attack an array of targets in an aggressive and risk-laden operation that marks a new phase in the conflict. (Reuters)

The U.S. military expanded its war against the Islamic State late Monday by sending waves of warplanes and launching Tomahawk missiles into Syria to attack an array of targets in an aggressive and risk-laden operation that marks a new phase in the conflict.

Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said late Monday that U.S. commanders had deployed a mix of fighter jets and bombers and had also launched ship-based Tomahawk missiles against Islamic State targets in Syria. He said the operations were ongoing and that more details would not be released until after the strikes were finished.

Kirby said in a statement that “partner nation forces” were also involved in the attacks but did not identify which other countries participated.

Two U.S. defense officials identified the partner nations as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. One official described them as “full participants” in the airstrikes in Syria but did not give further details, saying it was up to those countries to fully disclose their roles.

Residents of the northeastern Syrian city of Raqqa — the Islamic State’s self-declared capital — reported news of large explosions on Twitter and said repeated passes from military aircraft were clearly audible.

The United States was planning to attack as many as 20 Islamic State targets in the operation, which would mark the biggest single day of attacks since the military began striking the jihadist group in Iraq on Aug. 8, according to a senior U.S. military official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss details of the planned operation.

The targets of Monday’s operation included buildings occupied by Islamic State leaders and the group’s training sites and arsenals, according to the U.S. military official, who said drones were also involved in the attacks.

President Obama and other U.S. leaders had all but promised in recent days that they would order airstrikes against Islamic State strongholds in Syria. The jihadist movement — which the CIA estimates has up to 31,000 fighters at its disposal — controls much of eastern Syria and has used its bases there as a springboard for seizing territory in neighboring Iraq.

But in ordering the attacks, Obama also thrust the U.S. military directly into Syria’s devastating civil war, something that he had steadfastly tried to avoid since the country began breaking apart in 2011.

Obama was on the cusp of ordering U.S. military strikes in Syria a year ago to punish President Bashar al-Assad after strong evidence emerged that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons against civilians. Obama backed away at the last minute, however, when Syria agreed to an international plan to destroy its massive chemical weapons arsenal.

This time, the Americans’ target is not Assad, who has managed to cling to his seat in Damascus, but the Islamic State, a one-time al-Qaeda affiliate that has exploited the chaos in Syria to attract a huge flow of recruits, weapons and money.

The Islamic State also represents a mortal threat to Assad and has beaten back his forces on several fronts. The Obama administration has said repeatedly it would not cooperate with Assad in any way, even though the two sides now share an enemy.

As a result, it was unclear how Assad’s armed forces would respond to unauthorized intrusions into Syrian airspace by U.S. warplanes.

The Syrian government has some of the most formidable air defenses in the Middle East. Obama had publicly warned Syria in advance not to interfere with any U.S. operations against the Islamic State, saying the Pentagon would respond forcefully. In the end, U.S. military planners said they expected Assad would stand down and allow them to attack Islamic State targets freely.

Craig Whitlock covers the Pentagon and national security. He has reported for The Washington Post since 1998.

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