U.S. and Arab allies launch first strikes on fighters in Syria


The United States and its Arab allies bombed Syria for the first time on Tuesday, killing scores of ISIS fighters and members of a separate al Qaeda-linked group, opening a new front against militants by joining Syria's three-year-old civil war.

In a remarkable sign of shifting Middle East alliances, the attacks encountered no objection – and even signs of tacit approval – from President Bashar Assad's Syrian government, which said Washington had notified it in advance.

U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) said Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates participated in or supported the strikes against ISIS targets. All are countries hostile to Assad but now fearful of the fighters that have emerged out of the anti-Assad rebellion they backed.

U.S. President Barack Obama said in a televised statement that the breadth of the coalition, including the five Arab states, showed the United States was not alone.

The White House said some of the strikes had been conducted to disrupt an al Qaeda affiliate known as the Khorasan Group which it said had been plotting an imminent attack either in the United States or in Europe.

“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 before leaving the White House for the United Nations in New York, where he planned more talks to enlarge his alliance.

Warplanes and ship-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles struck dozens of targets including fighters, training compounds, headquarters and command and control facilities, storage sites, a finance center, trucks and armed vehicles, CENTCOM said.

“I can tell you that last night's strikes were only the beginning,” Rear Admiral John Kirby, a U.S. Defense Department spokesman, told reporters. The overnight attacks had been “very successful”, he said, but gave few details and would not discuss casualties.

Washington also said U.S. forces had acted alone to launch eight strikes in another area of Syria on the Khorasan Group, which U.S. officials have described in recent days as posing a threat similar to that from ISIS.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war in Syria, said at least 70 ISIS fighters were killed in strikes that hit at least 50 targets in the provinces of Raqqa, Deir al-Zor and Hasakah.

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. The Observatory said most of the Nusra Front fighters killed were not Syrians.

The air attacks fulfill Obama's pledge to strike in Syria against ISIS, a Sunni Muslim group that has seized swathes of Syria and Iraq, slaughtering prisoners and ordering Shi'ites and non-Muslims to convert or die.

It remains to be seen how effective air strikes can be against ISIS in Syria, where Washington lacks a strong ally to fight the group on the ground. The militants vowed reprisals, and an allied group is threatening to kill a French hostage captured in Algeria.

“COMMON ENEMY”

In a sign of how ISIS' rise has blurred conflict lines, the Syrian government said Washington had informed it hours before the strikes in a letter from Secretary of State John Kerry sent through his Iraqi counterpart.

The Pentagon said the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, had informed Syria's envoy in advance but there had been no coordination and no communication between the two countries' armed forces.

The Syrian foreign ministry refrained from criticizing the U.S.-led action. State media reported that a senior Iraqi envoy briefed Assad on the next steps and the Syrian leader said he supported any international effort to fight terrorism.

Only a year ago Washington was on the verge of bombing the Syrian government over the use of chemical weapons, before Obama canceled the strikes at the last minute.

Tightly-controlled Syrian state TV interviewed an analyst who said the air strikes did not amount to an act of aggression because the government had been notified. “This does not mean we are part of the joint operations room, and we are not part of the alliance. But there is a common enemy,” said the analyst, Ali al-Ahmad.

Syria's closest ally, Iran, responded cautiously. President Hassan Rouhani said in New York that without a U.N. mandate or a request from the government of the affected state, military strikes “don't have any legal standing.” However, he neither condemned nor endorsed the action.

Residents of the city of Raqqa, ISIS' de facto capital in eastern Syria, said by telephone that people were fleeing for the countryside after the bombs fell overnight.

ISIS vowed revenge against the United States. “These attacks will be answered,” a fighter told Reuters by Skype from Syria, blaming Saudi Arabia's ruling family for allowing the strikes to take place.

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

PITCHED INTO CIVIL WAR

The action pitched Washington for the first time into the Syrian civil war, which began with “Arab Spring” democracy protests in 2011 but has descended into a sectarian conflict that has killed 200,000 people, displaced millions and drawn in proxy forces backed by countries across the region.

The Syrian military pressed its campaign against the rebels unabated on Tuesday, shelling and carrying out air strikes in the southern province of Deraa and the outskirts of Damascus, as well as Raqqa and Idlib provinces, the Observatory said. Rebel and loyalist forces fought in the northern city of Aleppo.

U.S. forces have previously hit ISIS targets in Iraq, where Washington supports the government, but had held back from a military engagement in Syria where Obama still calls for the downfall of Assad. Washington has said it would not coordinate action against ISIS with Assad's government.

ISIS fighters, equipped with U.S. weapons seized in Iraq, are among the most powerful opponents of Assad, a member of a Shi'ite-derived sect. They are also battling rival Sunni groups in Syria, the Shi'ite-led government of Iraq and Kurdish forces on both sides of the border.

In recent days they have captured villages from Kurds near Syria's Turkish border, sending nearly 140,000 refugees across the frontier since last week. The United Nations said it was preparing for up to 400,000 people to flee.

The Western-backed Syrian opposition and Syrian Kurdish groups, which are fighting both Assad and ISIS, welcomed the air strikes and said they need more support.

“There is an exodus out of Raqqa as we speak,” a resident said by phone. “It started in the early hours of the day after the strikes. People are fleeing towards the countryside.”

The city's two-storey main administrative building had been hit by four rockets, which were so precise that nearby buildings were not damaged, said the resident, named Abo Mohammed. He said hundreds of fighters, who had been visible in the streets controlling traffic and security, had now vanished.

The main Syrian Kurdish armed group said ISIS fighters were redeploying from areas hit by the U.S. strikes towards territory controlled by the Kurds.

ARAB PRESENCE KEY, TRADITIONAL ALLIES ABSENT

The presence of Arab allies in the attacks was crucial for the credibility of the American-led campaign. With the backing of Jordan and the Gulf monarchies, Washington has the support of Sunni states hostile to Assad.

None of Washington's traditional Western allies has so far joined the campaign in Syria. Britain, which joined the United States in war in Iraq and Afghanistan last decade, said it was still considering its options. France has struck ISIS in Iraq but not in Syria, citing legal constraints.

NATO ally Turkey, which is alarmed by ISIS but also worried about Kurdish fighters and opposed to any action that might help Assad, has refused a military role in the coalition.

Assad's ally Russia, whose ties with Washington are at their lowest since the end of the Cold War, said any strikes in Syria are illegal without Assad's permission or a U.N. Security Council resolution, which Moscow would have the right to veto.

Additional reporting by Alexander Dziadosz and Mariam Karouny in Beirut, Roberta Rampton, Susan Heavey, Lesley Wroughton, Steve Holland and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Paul Taylor, Janet McBride and David Stamp

The Importance of Zinni


One of the most significant elements in Secretary of State Colin Powell’s speech of Nov. 19 was the appointment of Anthony Zinni, the much-decorated and admired retired Marine Corps four-star general, as his Mideast envoy.

Zinni’s last post was as head of CENTCOM, the command that covers 25 countries, including the Persian Gulf, most of the Middle East (except Israel, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey), as well as Afghanistan and the Central Asian states of the former Soviet Union, including Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. During the Gulf War, he was in charge of installing the Patriots in Israel — a task for which he received special recognition from the Israeli military.

By becoming the first American Mideast envoy with a military background, Zinni has already made history. But there’s a lot more to him than Vietnam decorations and experience in such hot spots as Somalia and Pakistan. Exhibiting none of the standoffish bravado often associated with American military leaders, he’s as at home in the civilian world as in the military one.

Powell turned to Zinni because he has the specific personal traits — among them the ability to instill confidence and to listen to others’ views — that could lead to success in solving the world’s most difficult diplomatic problem.

Some say that because Zinni was assigned to CENTCOM in the late 1990s, when he built a reputation and many close contacts in the Arab and Muslim world, he won’t be able to understand Israel’s concerns.

Quite the contrary. I am certain that Prime Minister Sharon will find Zinni a kindred spirit, to whom he can relate as a fellow retired military officer. Zinni will certainly show a special understanding of the risks and horror of terrorism, because CENTCOM has seen more American lives lost to terrorism than any other command. Barracks in Lebanon, Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, the USS Cole in Yemen, and the U.S. Embassy in Kenya are more than enough to make a former CENTCOM commander understand the need for the Mideast to reach stability.

It will be very difficult for anyone to bring about a cease-fire between Israelis and Palestinians, but this is the clear and necessary first step in returning the peace process to the track set forth in the Mitchell and Tenet plans, which are widely recognized by all parties as the only current path back from the brink.

With Zinni’s appointment, another debate has apparently been resolved within the Bush administration: that any meaningful progress can only be achieved in the Mideast through more active American diplomatic engagement there. The region’s importance is too great, and the consequences of further escalation too frightening to contemplate, to simply leave the Israelis and Palestinians a phone number to call. The Bush administration has now acted, and it should be congratulated for doing so.

The administration is enjoying the overwhelming support of the American Jewish community in its prosecution of the war on terrorism. A majority in the Jewish community understand the relationship between the Arab-Israeli conflict and broader American national security concerns. Most American Jews also understand there is no contradiction between maintaining America’s special relationship with her only truly democratic ally in the region and simultaneously acting as a credible broker in pursuing an elusive peace.

Zinni may be one of the few people willing to volunteer his time and hard-earned reputation to accomplish that peace. He goes with the best wishes of the Jewish community and their hopes and aspirations for his success.