The United States, along with a handful of Arab countries, launched the first air strikes against Islamic State targets in Syria, killing scores of Islamic State fighters and members of a separate al Qaeda-linked group, opening a new front against militants by joining a three-year-old civil war.
US Central Command said Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates participated in or supported the strikes against Islamic State targets around the eastern cities of Raqqa, Deir al-Zor, Hasakah and Albu Kamal.
Warplanes and ship-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles struck “fighters, training compounds, headquarters and command and control facilities, storage facilities, a finance centre, supply trucks and armed vehicles,” it said.
Washington also said US forces had acted alone to launch eight strikes in another area of Syria against the “Khorasan Group”, an al Qaeda unit US officials have described in recent days as posing a threat similar to that from Islamic State.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war in Syria, said at least 70 Islamic State fighters were killed in strikes that hit at least 50 targets in Raqqa and Deir al-Zor and Hasakah provinces in Syria’s east.
It said at least 50 fighters and eight civilians were killed in strikes targeting al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, in northern Aleppo and Idlib provinces, apparently referring to the strikes the Americans said targeted Khorasan. The Observatory said most of the Nusra Front fighters killed were not Syrians.
Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon's press secretary, said the US was joined by "partner nation forces" in the air strikes but did not name them. They were identified by a senior Department of Defence official as Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Bahrain.
Qatar is said to have played a supporting role in the military strikes in Syria but did not participate in the strikes themselves.
“The decision to conduct these strikes was made earlier today by the US Central Command commander under authorisation granted him by the commander-in-chief ,” said Rear Admiral Kirby.
The US has conducted 190 air strikes on IS targets in Iraq since early last month and president Obama signalled earlier this month that the US was preparing to step up the fight against the group's command centres in Syria where two thirds of the estimated IS fighters are based.
The strikes reportedly targeted 20 sites at the heart of the militants’ area of control in the Syrian city of Raqqa, the group’s unofficial capital, and at sites along the Iraqi border.
The involvement of Middle Eastern countries in the attacks shows the diplomatic efforts expended by the US over less than two weeks since Mr Obama unveiled his strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the radical Islamic group with a broad coalition of partners.
US secretary of state John Kerry embarked on a four-day tour of the Middle East to try to drum up support for the president’s strategy.
A spokesman for Nato said it was not involved in the operation.
The strikes come as Mr Obama travels to New York today for the United Nations general assembly where he will attempt to rally more international support for the war against the Islamic fighters.
America's ability to draw support from Sunni-led countries such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and UAE in the fight against an extremist Sunni group shows the strength of the US case for military action and the fears within these countries about the risk of the group destabilising the region after seizing control of large parts of Syria and Iraq.
The US has said that it has the support of more than 40 countries, including 10 Arab states, in its strategy to destroy the Islamic militants.
Saudi Arabia, a long-time ally of the US, had already agreed to host the American training of moderate Syrian opposition forces, a part of Mr Obama’s plan approved by the US Congress last week.
Jordan, a neighbour of Syria, has borne a heavy burden from the civil war next door, taking in more than 600,000 refugees, while the UAE is hosting 600 Australian troops and fighter jets being committed to help the American assault on Isis.
Mr Obama used a September 10th televised address from the White House to warn the Islamic fighters that the US would “hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are” and signalled that he was willing to take action against IS in Syria as well as Iraq.
“This is a core principle of my presidency: if you threaten America, you will find no safe haven,” he warned in an unusually aggressive speech as he was buoyed by growing public desire for stronger action against a group that has beheaded two American journalists.
Mr Obama has until recent weeks been reluctant to be drawn into the three-year Syrian civil war but the killings of the journalists and the threat posed by foreign fighters within IS, including an estimated 100 Americans, changed public opinion.
The president had warned that he did not require Congressional approval to bomb IS in Syria and proceeded last night to strike without authorisation. Republican hawks are likely to be encouraged by the involvement of a large number of Middle Eastern countries acting with the US.
“While this initial attack will be a big psychological blow to the terrorist group, an air campaign will need to be major and sustain,” said Republican congressman Ed Royce of California, chairman of the influential House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“The reported participation of Arab allies in the region is welcome. This is their fight as much as ours.”
Syria’s foreign ministry said the United States informed Damascus’ envoy to the United Nations before launching airstrikes against the Islamic State group in Syria.
Syrian state media carried a brief statement from the foreign ministry early today, saying that “the American side informed Syria’s permanent envoy to the UN that strikes will be launched against the Daesh terrorist organisation in Raqqa.”
The statement used an Arabic name referring to the Islamic State group.
The Russian foreign ministry today said any airstrikes against Islamic State’s positions on Syrian territory must be agreed with Damascus and otherwise will fuel tension in the region.
“Any such action can be carried out only in accordance with international law. That implies not a formal, one-sided ‘notification’ of airstrikes but the presence of explicit consent from the government of Syria or the approval of a corresponding UN Security Council decision,” it said in a statement.
“Attempts to achieve one’s own geopolitical goals in violation of the sovereignty of countries in the region only exacerbates tensions and further destabilises the situation.”
Additional reporting: Reuters