WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Tuesday hailed the US-led coalition that conducted airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria on Tuesday morning, declaring, “We’re going to do what is necessary to take the fight to this terrorist group.”
Speaking on the South Lawn of the White House just before leaving for New York City to attend the UN General Assembly, Obama emphasized that the extensive operation had included Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain.
“America is proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with these nations on behalf of our common security,” Obama said. “The strength of this coalition makes clear to the world that this is not just America’s fight alone.”
The president said US planes had also struck targets of another militant group, Khorasan, declaring that there would be “no safe haven” for the Al Qaeda-linked group, which officials say has been plotting attacks against Americans.
The expansion of military action to Syria, as leaders of 180 countries are gathering at the United Nations, is likely to galvanize a meeting that was already going to be dominated by Obama’s efforts to build a coalition for the fight against the Islamic State.
Obama said he would meet with leaders from several countries in an effort to cut off the Islamic State’s “financing, to counter its hateful ideology, and to stop the flow of fighters into the region.”
The participation of five Arab countries in the operation will bolster the president’s argument that this campaign does not pit the United States against the Sunni Muslim world, but rather a broad coalition of Sunni Muslim countries against a Sunni extremist group.
The attacks were said to have scattered the jihadist forces and damaged the network of facilities they have built in Syria that helped fuel the group’s seizure of a large part of Iraq this year.
Separate from the attacks on the Islamic State, the US Central Command said that US forces acting alone “took action” against “a network of seasoned Al Qaeda veterans” from the Khorasan group in Syria to disrupt “imminent attack planning against the United States and Western interests.”
Officials did not reveal where or when such attacks might take place.
Al Qaeda cut ties with the Islamic State earlier this year because the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, disobeyed orders from Al Qaeda to fight only in Iraq. Just days ago, US officials said the Khorasan group, led by a shadowy figure who was once in Osama bin Laden’s inner circle, had emerged in the past year as the Syria-based cell most intent on launching a terrorist attack on the United States or on its installations overseas.
The latest campaign opened with multiple strikes before dawn that focused on the Islamic State’s de facto capital, the city of Raqqa, and on its bases in the surrounding countryside. Other strikes hit in the provinces of Deir el-Zour and Hasaka, whose oil wells the Islamic State have exploited to finance its operations.
The extent of the damage caused by the strikes remained unclear. Central Command said the wave of fighter planes, bombers, drones and cruise missiles struck 14 targets linked to the Islamic State.
“All aircraft safely exited the strike areas,” the statement said.
Almost 50 cruise missiles were launched from two US vessels in the Red Sea and the north of the Persian Gulf, it said, adding that four other attacks were launched on militant targets in Iraq in the same period, bringing the total there to 194.
The intensity and scale of the strikes were greater than those launched by the United States in Iraq, where it has been bombing select Islamic State targets for months. The air campaign also marks the biggest direct military intervention in Syria since the crisis began more than three years ago.
Central Command identified the Arab states participating in the campaign as Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Their participation is seen as important to limit criticisms that the United States is waging war alone against Muslims. But their role varied between support for the strikes and participation, the military said.
The Jordanian army said Tuesday that it had carried out airstrikes against “terrorist groups” that were plotting to attack Jordan, according to Reuters.
In intervening in Syria, the United States is injecting its military might into a brutal civil war between the government of President Bashar Assad, the Islamic State and a range of rebel groups that originally took up arms to fight Assad but have also come to oppose the Islamic State.
It was unclear what effect the US-led strikes would have on the larger conflict.
The Islamic State, while having chalked up numerous victories against the Syrian and Iraqi security forces and against Syrian rebels, has proved vulnerable to air power in Iraq, and it is unlikely that it can continue to hold all of its territory and facilities amid a sustained air campaign.
US officials said that the strikes were not coordinated with the government of Assad, who Obama said has lost his legitimacy to rule and should step down. President Hassan Rouhani of Iran said at the United Nations on Tuesday that the airstrikes were illegal because they did not have the approval of the Syrian government.
Jen Psaki, the spokeswoman for the State Department, said Tuesday that the administration had informed the Syrian government directly of the intent to take action through Samantha Power, the ambassador to the United Nations, who spoke with the Syrian permanent representative to the United Nations.
“We did not request the regime’s permission,” Psaki said. “We did not coordinate our actions with the Syrian government. We did not provide advance notification to the Syrians at a military level, or give any indication of our timing on specific targets.”
This followed weeks of threats by Syrian officials that any uncoordinated strikes on Syria would be considered an act of aggression.
Some of Syria’s allies have suggested that the government in Damascus would benefit from strikes, although analysts question whether the Syrian military has the forces it would need to do so.
Syria also has hundreds of rebels groups, many of which hate the Islamic State, and the United States has been working with allies to build up a small number groups deemed moderate. But these forces remain relatively small and are far from the Islamic State’s locations, so there is little chance that they will soon be able to seize control of any areas vacated by the Islamic State.
Reuters quoted an unidentified Islamic State fighter as saying “these attacks will be answered.” The militants have already released videos showing the beheadings of two American hostages and of one British captive, and have threatened a fourth hostage, a Briton, with the same fate.
Additionally, an Algerian group linked to Islamic State has claimed to have kidnapped a French citizen. Prime Minister Manuel Valls told French radio that there would be “no discussion, no negotiation and we will never give in to blackmail” about the hostage’s fate.
France, whose warplanes joined the air campaign in Iraq last week but not the overnight strikes in Syria, has strongly denied persistent reports that it has paid ransom money to free its citizens held hostage by jihadist groups.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported strikes in five Syrian provinces, in the country’s north and east, targeting bases and training camps of the Islamic State and other groups.
In addition to Islamic State bases in the provinces of Raqqa, Hasaka, Deir el-Zour and Aleppo, strikes also hit bases belonging to the Nusra Front further west, killing at least seven Nusra fighters and eight civilians, according to the observatory, which tracks the conflict from Britain through a network of contacts in Syria.
Even for a population that has grown used to the sounds and sights of war, the new strikes proved surprising.
In a video posted online, a man in Idlib province inspected a greenish metal hunk of what he said was the remainder of the munitions used in a strike.
“No one knows what happened yet,” the man said. “This was the first time we have heard an explosion like this during this revolution.”
Adding to the broader ramifications of the Syrian war, the Israeli military said Tuesday that it had shot down a Syrian fighter jet that had “infiltrated into Israeli airspace,” the first such incident in at least a quarter of a century.
Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, a military spokesman, said the Patriot air-defense system had intercepted a Russian-made Sukhoi warplane over the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights around 9:15 a.m.
On Syria’s northern border, meanwhile, more than 130,000 Syrian Kurds have fled into Turkey to escape an advance by Islamic State fighters. The humanitarian catastrophe could worsen within days. The UN relief agency in Geneva said Tuesday that it was possible that all 400,000 inhabitants of a Syrian Kurdish border town, which Arabs refer to as Ayn-al-Arab and Kurds call Kobani, would to try to flee into Turkey.
The UN human rights agency said Tuesday that it had received “very alarming” reports from the town of “deliberate killing of civilians, including women and children, the abduction of hundreds of Kurds” by the Islamic State, and “widespread looting and destruction of infrastructure and private property.”
Militants had taken over the main source of water, leading to severe shortages, the agency said.
“While an estimated 138,000 people have fled the area,” the organization added in a statement, “hundreds of thousands remain in the region, living in fear of the kind of persecution” that the Islamic State “has carried out against religious and ethnic minorities elsewhere in Syria and Iraq.”
In Britain, senior officials said Prime Minister David Cameron was weighing whether to seek Parliament’s approval to join the air war, but only in Iraq and at the invitation of the Baghdad government.