News / Middle East

    US: Syria Won't, Can't Stop Militant Safe Havens

    US, Gulf Allies Strike Islamic State Militants in Syriai
    Henry Ridgwell
    September 23, 2014 9:56 PM
    United States forces have carried out strikes against Islamic State or ISIL militant positions in Syria - the first time Western forces have taken action on Syrian soil. Five U.S. allies from the Gulf joined the military action. Local reports suggest dozens of militants were killed. The U.S. also carried out unilateral missile strikes against a Syria-based terror group which Washington says poses an imminent threat to the West. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
    ກຳປັ່ນລົບ ສຫລ ຍິງລູກສອນໄຟຄຣູສ
    Aru PandeCarla Babb

    President Barack Obama on Tuesday hailed the coalition of Arab states that joined U.S. forces to pound Islamic State targets in Syria, calling it a sign that Middle Eastern people were “standing up for the peace and security that the people of the region and the world deserves.”

    Hours earlier, U.S. forces and Arab allies hit dozens of targets, using war planes, remote drones and ship-launched cruise missiles to attack the militants in Syria for the first time.

    The attacks, which U.S. officials are calling "very succesful," were the largest of their sort since Obama announced nearly two weeks ago that the U.S. would be stepping up its fight against the group.

    The United States also said it launched airstrikes on Syrian territory for because the Syrian government cannot or will not stop the militants from setting up safe havens.

    Watch related TV report by Carla Babb:

    In a letter to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power wrote that the Islamic State group have been using safe havens inside Syria to train, finance and launch attacks against the Iraqi people.

    The U.N. Charter calls on member states to prevent such actions on its territory.

    The president said the United States was joined by five “friends and partners” — Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had either participated or supported the strikes, which involved jets, bombers, drones and ships firing cruise missiles — on behalf of the world’s common security.

    "America is proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with these nations on behalf of our common security. The strength of this coalition makes it clear to the world that this is not America's fight alone," Obama said in a brief televised statement. "Above all, the people and governments in the Middle East are rejecting ISIL and standing up for the peace and security that the people of the region and the world deserve."

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    It wasn’t immediately clear how many militants were killed, though the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 120 fighters were killed in strikes that hit at least 50 targets in Raqqa and Deir al-Zor provinces in Syria's east. Rami Abdulrahman, who heads the London-based group monitoring the Syria war, said at least 300 people, including members of the Islamic State and al-Qaida, were dead or wounded following the bombings.

    U.S. Central Command said 14 airstrikes damaged or destroyed targets in four areas of eastern Syria, including in the Islamic State group's main stronghold of Raqqa.

    The president said more than 40 nations have joined the U.S. effort to counter the threat from the Islamic State, including taking out the militant group’s safe havens, training and equipping Iraqi forces and the Syrian opposition, cutting off the group’s financing, and stemming the flow of foreign fighters into and out of the region.

    Campaign expected to dominate UNGA

    The effort is expected to dominate talks as President Obama meets with Iraq’s prime minister, Arab leaders, and other allies during this week’s U.N. General Assembly.

    The coalition building has been taking place ever since the president’s September 10 speech announcing the expansion of the U.S. military’s air campaign into Syria. 

    U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has had numerous meetings with Arab leaders in the Middle East to line up their support and involvement. A senior U.S. official said the administration was surprised by how willing these nations were to contribute to the fight against the Islamic State. The official said Saudi Arabia committed early on to carry out airstrikes if needed.

    Former American ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, tells VOA the fact that Arab nations have lined up to fly bombing missions alongside the United States is crucial.

    “This is not about the United States against the so-called Islamic State," he said. "This is a regional fight with regional allies, Arab allies, and Muslim allies standing up to the same foe we face. That, I think, is extremely important.”

    Johns Hopkins University conflict management professor Daniel Serwer notes this type of coalition building early on could play a key role in ensuring the success of the mission against the Islamic State over the long term.

    “I think it is an important step in the right direction," he said. "It is a little bit unclear exactly what all five did to support the airstrikes and I suppose we'll find that out in due course; but it is important that Sunni Arab countries be seen visibly as willing and able to fight the Sunni Arab terrorists."

    Senior administration officials say it is remarkable that within a two-week timeframe, the U.S. Central Command was able to turn commitments from Arab partners into a plan that culminated in the bombing of Islamic State targets in Syria.

    More strikes expected

    “Last night’s strikes were the beginning of a credible and sustained campaign to destroy and degrade [the Islamic State group]," Lt. Gen. William Mayville, who directs operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at a Pentagon briefing. “[More] strikes like these can be expected.”

    The Pentagon says 96 percent of strikes were with precision-guided missiles, but even so, Syrian rights groups are already blaming U.S. strikes in Syria for about a dozen civilian casualties, including three children.

    Lt. Gen. Mayville said the Pentagon was "unaware of any civilian casualties from the strikes."

    "Obviously limiting civilian casualties is a top priority to the United States," Mayville told VOA. "And if any reports of civilian casualties emerge we will fully investigate."

    Tuesday’s action also pitched Washington for the first time into the three-year-old Syrian civil war, which has killed 200,000 people and displaced millions. U.S. forces have previously hit Islamic State targets in Iraq, where Washington supports the government, but had held back from a military engagement in Syria, where the United States opposes President Bashar al-Assad.

    It was unclear exactly what sort of notification the United States had given Syria prior to the attacks.

    In a government statement read on state TV, the Syrian Foreign Ministry said Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem had received a letter from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry via the foreign minister of Iraq, whose Shiite-led government is a close ally of Damascus.

    In a written statement on Tuesday, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. did not request permission from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for the airstrikes, but had notified the country's U.N. representative of the intent to begin the campaign.

    Syria confirmed that communication.

    Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant
    • Formed by members of al-Qaida-linked groups in Syria and Iraq
    • Aims to establish an Islamic emirate across Syria and Iraq
    • Led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, former leader of al-Qaida in Iraq
    • Believed to have 5,000 to 7,000 fighters
    • Has launched high-profile attacks in both countries

    “We warned Syria not to engage U.S. aircraft," Psaki said in the statement. "We did not request the regime's permission. 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. Secretary Kerry did not send a letter to the Syrian regime.​”

    Asked if there had been any sign that Syrian anti-aircraft defense forces had targeted the coalition planes or missile, Mayville said only there had been "passive radar acquisition." That suggested that Syria deliberately chose not make any moves that could have been seen as threatening or provocative.

    As international leaders gathered in New York for the annual United Nations General Assembly, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon supported action to protect Syrians from militants who he said "pose an immediate threat to international peace and security."

    He urged coalition forces to abide by U.N. principles and international humanitarian law in carrying out their campaign.

    "In the case of Syria there can be no genuine protection if extremist groups are permitted to act with impunity and if the Syrian government continues to commit gross human rights violations against its own citizens," he said.

    The airstrikes have raised questions about how coalition forces entered foreign airspace in a country with which the U.S. does not maintain direct diplomatic relations.

    The Sunni fighters, who have proclaimed a caliphate ruling over all Muslims, alarmed the Middle East by sweeping through northern Iraq in June. They shocked the West in recent weeks by beheading two U.S. journalists and a British aid worker, raising fears that they could attack Western countries.

    Alleged Plot Disrupted

    American forces also conducted eight airstrikes west of Aleppo against a group of former al-Qaida fighters known as the Khorasan Group. That action was in response to an "imminent" plot against U.S. and Western interests, Central Command said.

    "Once again, it must be clear to anyone who would plot against America and do Americans harm that we will not tolerate safe havens for terrorists who threaten our people," Obama said.

    Obama said on Sept. 10 he had authorized the expanded use of airstrikes in Syria against the Islamic State. The Sunni fighters, now equipped with U.S. weapons seized during their advance in Iraq, are among the most powerful opponents of Assad, who is a member of a Shiite-derived sect.

    They are also battling against rival Sunni groups in Syria, against the Shiite-led government of Iraq and against Kurdish forces on both sides of the border.

    In the past week, the militants’ advance has also included Kurdish areas in northern Syria, along the Turkish border, leading to more than 130,000 people crossing into Turkey.

    Before Tuesday’s attacks, the U.S. had conducted 190 airstrikes, in an effort to help Iraqi and Kurdish forces push fighters from vulnerable populations and government infrastructure.

    Arab Participation

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    The addition of Arab allies in the attacks was crucial for the credibility of the American-led campaign. Some U.S. allies in the Middle East are skeptical of how far Washington will commit to a conflict in which nearly every country in the region has a stake, set against the backdrop of Islam's 1,300-year-old rift between Sunnis and Shiites.

    With the backing of Jordan and the Gulf states, Washington has gained the support of Sunni states that are hostile to Assad. It has not, however, won the support of Assad himself or his main regional ally, Shiite Iran.

    Traditional Western allies, including Britain which went to war alongside the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, have so far declined to participate in the campaign. France has struck Islamic State in Iraq but not in Syria.

    Australia Welcomes Strikes; Russia Criticizes

    Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott praised the effort, saying an international effort was needed to combat the Islamic State threat. Australia has promised to contribute 600 troops and eight warplanes.

    “This is a global problem,” Abbott told parliament Tuesday. “These are people who have been radicalized and brutalized, and could become potential terrorists in their home countries.”

    Australian law enforcement this week conducted sweeping counter-terrorism operations in 25 locations in Sydney and Brisbane, after officials warned of imminent threats from people returning from conflicts in the Middle East. Intelligence officials have estimated 60 Australian nationals are fighting alongside radical groups.

    The sweeps resulted in two people being charged with serious offenses.

    In Moscow, meanwhile, Russia said the attacks they should have been agreed upon with its ally Damascus and would fuel tension in the region.

    “Any such action can be carried out only in accordance with international law,'' the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

    “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 U.N. Security Council decision,” the statement said.

    Speaking at a Pentagon news conference on Tuesday, Lt. Mayville repeated what U.S. officials have said: although the U.S. anticipates the battle against the Islamic State will take several years, the U.S. will not put troops on the ground in Iraq and Syria.

    Obama said Tuesday that the U.S. will continue to train moderate Syrian opposition members, who he called "the best counterweight" to the Islamic State and the Syrian regime.

    VOA's Phil Mercer in Australia and Carla Babb at the Pentagon contributed to this report. VOA's Aru Pande contributed from the White House. Material from Reuters was used in this report.

    • Press briefing slide - Before (left side) and after airstrike on ISIL Command and Control Center by coalition forces, Raqqah, Syria, Sept. 23, 2014, (U.S. Central Command Center)
    • Press briefing slide - Before (on the left) and after airstrike on ISIL Finance Center by coalition forces, Raqqah, Syria, Sept. 23, 2014, (U.S. Central Command Center)
    • Press briefing slide - Airstrike on Abu Kamal ISIL residence by coalition forces, Raqqah, Syria, Sept. 23, 2014, (U.S. Central Command Center)
    • Press briefing slide - Frame from video of airstrike on Abu Kamal ISIL residence by coalition forces, Raqqah, Syria, Sept. 23, 2014, (U.S. Central Command Center)
    • Press briefing slide - Syria, locations of strikes against ISIL by coalition forces, Sept. 23, 2014.  (U.S. Central Command Center)

    Carla Babb

    Carla is VOA's Pentagon correspondent covering defense and international security issues. Her datelines include Ukraine, Turkey, Pakistan, Korea, Japan and Egypt.

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    Comment Sorting
    Comments page of 3
    by: us from: us
    September 24, 2014 10:46 PM
    More propaganda--blah blah blah. Keep people in fear is what they do. I guess the US wants control of more oilfields. Stupid Americans will believe anything as long as the TV says it's true

    by: eusebio manuel vestias from: Portugal
    September 24, 2014 6:03 AM
    Coalition global the peace end the war in Iraq and Syria

    by: Anonymous
    September 24, 2014 4:32 AM
    There are all sorts of phobias out there. The islamophobia that our leaders suffer from is fear of offending Muslims. Then there is fear of being labelled racist, and fear of being considered inhuman. Because of these phobias large and growing populations of Muslims have become established in our once stable societies. These phobias have resulted in us having to live in fear of the Islam that is in our midst.

    by: Igor from: Russia
    September 24, 2014 1:31 AM
    "Syria Won't, Can't Stop Militant Safe Havens"??? I think it is the USA is incapable of stopping militant safe havens. Pls look at Iraq, Afganistan, Lybia, Pakistan...and the Middle East as a whole. After the invasion and destruction by the USA and its allies, the militants have risen up like mushrooms after a shower. Syria has done their best to fight terrorism inside its territory.

    by: max ajida from: pretoria, South Africa
    September 24, 2014 1:29 AM
    US- "Syria can't stop militant haven". This is what the US says about Syria. How can Syria stop militants while they're sponsoring them. Kerry ,is there any logical in your statement. Syria can stop militants if US and allies stop supplying weapons to militants whether you call them moderate or not. US has created militants havens in Syria. US and allies have failed to bring peace to Syria. Who has murdered more people , Assad and the militants you sponsor in Syria. Bring all these waring parties to the table for peace negotiation.

    by: jerry hansen from: USA
    September 23, 2014 7:41 PM
    Where did all those birther GOP types go? Reminds me - during "Monicagate" - Clinton started several wars in the Balkans - the GOP alternately said it was for distraction - or they would mean endless war. Oddly - the same crowd that were enthusiastic for Iraq round 2 war - the quick, easy, cheap one.

    by: Davmin from: California
    September 23, 2014 7:23 PM
    Can't you just see it now: Omar, it's your turn on the night shift. You may luck out and see some virgins!!

    by: fixento from: PA
    September 23, 2014 6:51 PM
    Why are we hitting them at night? You want all the leadership of ISIS in the buildings when hit them. This makes no sense, we killed a bunch of guards and janitors and not the people that make ISIS tick.

    by: Pete from: Vancouver
    September 23, 2014 6:18 PM
    How can we trust the many Muslims that will be part of the attack. In their hearts, all Muslims will want to end this with a cease fire that creates peace & an Islamic state. To that end, some will foil all attempts at total victory and the victim of their treachery will be our men & women. This is folly. Obama created the instability across the region with secret wars, illegal arms shipment and murder; Was it all just to create a Islamic state?

    by: Tom Murphy from: Heartland America
    September 23, 2014 12:15 PM
    First Day's Battle Tally:
    US and Allied Forces: 190
    ISIS: 0
    This day's battle shows how impotent ISIS is with respect to the USA. This band of cowards, thugs and murderers had no clue of what their actions and blustering claims of strength would bring down on their heads. This has been described as the first day of a multilayer effort. The job of ISIS murderer does not have the shining future envisioned by its organizers. The future choices are: quit ISIS and run away or die. Death from above will find you.
    In Response

    by: Tom Murphy from: Heartland America
    September 23, 2014 3:16 PM
    So, your friends and relatives in ISIS are being hammered and have only insignificant means to strike back. If ISIS had the same capabilities as the USA, they would use it to enslave the world. The fact that the USA does not use its power to enslave the world is evidence that it does God's work in the world for the freedom of all nations. The USA military frequently sends its hospital ships to small countries to do humanitarian work in providing life-saving surgery and diagnosis to poor people who cannot afford the cost of such treatment. No repayment is expected for these humanitarian works. Its a gift from the people of the USA to the people of underdeveloped nations.
    In Response

    by: AndyfromChicago from: Chicago, USA
    September 23, 2014 3:16 PM
    @Tom Murphy @Meanbill: Each of you has a point here. ISIS obviously does not have anything to match up against the U.S. weapons technology, and cannot expect to survive very long in a head-to-head fight. But it won't fight head-to-head battles, and instead will wage a guerrilla-style "hit and run" war.

    @Meanbill makes a valid point; we can't completely defeat ISIS remotely. Having said that, I disagree that we should commit any ground forces to Iraq or Syria. I would support a special forces action to kill the ISIS leadership - as we did with Osama bin Laden, if we can find al Baghdadi and his colleagues.
    In Response

    by: meanbill from: USA
    September 23, 2014 1:48 PM
    Hey Tom.... The US controls the air, sea, and land with the greatest military weapons in the world, and uses it's supreme airpower of warplanes, attack helicopters, cruise missiles and killer done missiles and bombs [like in Afghanistan] to bomb and kill America's enemies, while hiding from them behind (30) foot high blast-proof walls [or on warships far out at sea], and do like the Israelis do, [bombard the enemies civilians] with every weapon they have, from a very every safe distance, don't they?..... [Has the US ever defeated any country or terrorist group since WW2, using this strategy?].... [don't count the many small battles the US wins or won, [but], do show all the major wars the US "didn't" win and lost?]..
    Comments page of 3

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