President Barack Obama on Tuesday heralded the partnership of five Sunni Arab nations in military action against Islamic State in Levant in Syria (ISIL), just hours after a first wave of airstrikes killed an estimated 120 extremists in the civil-war-torn country.
The U.S., Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Bahrain and Qatar used a mix of manned aircraft — fighter jets and bombers — plus Tomahawk cruise missiles, in 14 strikes on ISIL targets in Syria overnight. The offensive was part of the expanded military campaign that Obama authorized nearly two weeks ago to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the group that has slaughtered thousands of people, beheaded Westerners — including two American journalists — and captured large areas of Syria and northern and western Iraq.
“America is proud to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with these nations on behalf of our common security,” Obama said in brief comments on the White House's South Lawn on Tuesday morning. “The strength of this coalition makes it clear to the world that this is not America’s fight alone. Above all, the people and governments of the Middle East are rejecting ISIL and standing up for the peace and security that the people of the region and the world deserve.”
The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Tuesday that at least 70 ISIL members had been killed in the airstrikes, in addition to 50 fighters from the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front. At least eight civilians are also believed to have lost their lives in the raids.
U.S. officials said the airstrikes began around 8:30 p.m. EDT on Monday, with the first wave of strikes finishing about 90 minutes later. The operation was expected to continue for several more hours, according to one U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
Many of the airstrikes were against ISIL’s self-declared capital in Raqqa in northeastern Syria. Military officials have said the U.S. would target the insurgents’ command and control centers, resupply facilities, training camps and other key logistical sites.
One Raqqa-based activist, speaking under the nom de guerre Ibrahim, told Al Jazeera that power was cut for several hours and that a communications tower was struck, downing cell phone service for a while.
An anti-ISIL media collective called "Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently" said among the targets were Islamic State buildings used as the group's headquarters, and the Brigade 93, a Syrian army base that ISIL had recently seized. Other airstrikes targeted the town of Tabqa and Tel Abyad in Raqqa province, it said. Their claims could not be independently verified.
Tuesday’s actions, in coalition with five Sunni nations, were a sign U.S. leaders had succeeded in their goal of building a broader international coalition to combat ISIL.
At a conference on Sept. 11 with Secretary of State John Kerry, key Arab allies promised they would "do their share" to fight ISIL, though it was unclear what level of commitment they would make. The Obama administration, which at a NATO meeting in Wales earlier this month also got commitments from European allies as well as Canada and Australia, has insisted that the fight against ISIL could not be the United States' fight alone.
Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon's press secretary, said the military made the decision to strike early on Monday and that they “believe we hit largely everything we were aiming at.”
“Ninety-nine percent of all the munitions dropped last night were precision-guided munitions,” Kirby told Fox News on Tuesday. The operation took care “to make sure that we were hitting what we were aiming at and not causing collateral damage. We don’t have any indications that we did.”
The Syrian Observatory, however, reported 8 civilian casualties from the strikes, though it was not clear where those deaths had occured.
The U.S. has also been increasing its surveillance flights over Syria, acquiring better intelligence on potential targets and insurgent movements. Military leaders have said about two-thirds of the estimated 31,000 Islamic State fighters were in Syria.
Some officials have expressed concern that going after ISIL in Syria could inadvertently help Syrian President Bashar Assad, since the group is fighting, in part, to overthrow Assad.
U.S. military and defense leaders told Congress last week that airstrikes within Syria are meant to disrupt the group's momentum and provide time for the U.S. and allies to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels — the weakest armed group on the ground in Syria’s war.
It wasn’t yet clear if more strikes were planned in the near future, but U.S. officials have indicated that the anti-ISIL operation in Iraq and Syria could be prolonged. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the plan "includes targeted actions against ISIL safe havens in Syria, including its command and control logistics capabilities and infrastructure.”
The U.S. military has been launching targeted airstrikes in Iraq since August, focusing specifically on attacks to protect U.S. interests and personnel, assist Iraqi refugees and secure critical infrastructure. Last week, as part of the newly expanded campaign, the U.S. began going after ISIL targets across Iraq, including enemy fighters, outposts, equipment and weapons.
To date U.S. fighter aircraft, bombers and drones have launched about 190 airstrikes within Iraq.
Urged on by the White House and U.S. defense and military officials, Congress passed legislation late last week authorizing the military to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels. Obama signed the bill into law on Friday, providing $500 million for the U.S. to train about 5,000 rebels over the next year.
ISIL, meanwhile, has threatened retribution. Its spokesman, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, said in a 42-minute audio statement released on Sunday that the fighters were ready to battle the U.S.-led military coalition and called for attacks at home and abroad.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press. Michael Pizzi contributed reporting.