With the help of its Arab allies, the United States unleashed a salvo of airstrikes early Tuesday against Islamic State targets in Syria, dramatically opening an unpredictable new chapter in the war against the IS and other hardline Sunni militants.
Initial reports from Syria spoke of dozens of IS dead and hundreds wounded, while the US military reported that its targets were hit with great precision. Civilian casualties among Arab Sunnis carry the risk of pushing potential partners into the arms of jihadist groups.
The initial round of strikes by warplanes and cruise missiles didn't appear to have any immediate impact on the IS offensive against Kurdish villages along the Turkish border, which had precipitated the flight of tens of thousands of Kurds just days ago. Sources in Raqqa, an IS stronghold in Syria, said the jihadist forces had relocated away from some of the targeted sites ahead of the airstrikes.
While some analysts repeated the refrain that the fight against IS, whether in Iraq or Syria, cannot be won without troops on the ground, others went further, suggesting that in the short term, at least, the US-led strikes could strengthen the group's cause.
“The Islamic State invited military intervention in order to justify its own raison d'etre as a group fighting ‘crusades’ and apostate Arab regimes,” says Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “Putting itself in a defensive position is aimed at attracting sympathizers. So the strikes against IS are not going to result in a major change in its strategy, because they are in fact part and parcel of the strategy in the first place.”
Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates took part in the US-led operation. US Central Command said the forces used a combination of war planes, including fighters jets and drones, as well Tomahawk land attack missiles to conduct strikes against 14 IS-targets.
'Sky lit up like an early dawn'
“It was terrifying – the sky lit up like an early dawn and the sound of explosions left us almost deaf,” says Mohammed Abdullah, a Raqqa resident. He gave a pseudonym out of concern for his safety. “People are starting to flee the city worried that more strikes will come.”
Prior to the attacks, IS militants had significantly scaled down their presence, according to Abu Yahya, a Sunni Islamist who was there during the strikes. “The brothers are not in their bases, nor in the desert, they’ve lowered their profile … sleeping in discreet vehicles in civilian areas,” he says.
“These strikes are nothing like [Syrian President Bashar] Assad’s bombing campaign. The blasts were really strong. People are really very afraid now, they don’t know what to do or where to go,” he adds.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, said in a statement that 70 fighters of the Islamic State, some of them Syrian nationals, were killed and that 300 others were wounded in strikes focused on the Syrian provinces of Deir Ezzor, Hassake and Raqqa.
IS casualties were being transported to Iraq, according to the statement.
US hits little-known Khorasan Group
Acting without its anti-IS partners, the United States Tuesday also hit the little-known Khorasan Group in a blitz campaign west of Aleppo, Syria. The eight air strikes hit training camps, munitions factories, a communication building and command and control facilities, according to a statement released by Centcom.
The aim of that attack was to “disrupt the imminent attack plotting against the United States and Western interests conducted by a network of Al Qaeda veterans,” read the statement. It remains unclear whether Khorasan is an independent terrorist cell or a loose network of Al Qaeda leaders who joined jihadi groups from Afghanistan.
Other Syrian activists said targets of the Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, a group that kidnapped and later released 45 UN peacekeepers, were also hit in the bombing campaign. Unlike the Islamic State, which hopes to carve out a “caliphate” straddling Syria and Iraq, Jabhat al-Nusra and Khorasan do not have territorial ambitions.
Analysts say that the multiplicity of anti-Western extremist groups underscores the urgent need to build a force on the ground that can act as a counterweight and ultimately help stamp out radical elements in Syria and Iraq.
Danger of retaliation
In the near term, warns Carnegie’s Dr. Khatib, the US and its Western and Arab allies could well face retaliatory attacks by the Islamic State and the other targeted groups.
“The Islamic State will not be able to overwhelm the campaign against it within Syria,” she writes in an e-mail, “but its global members are likely to be activated to compensate for that.”
Khatib warns that the coalition “does not appear to have a viable military strategy or a political strategy. There is a great risk that the campaign against the Islamic State will backfire and spread instability across the Middle East as opposed to contain it.”
Other analysts say that the fight in Syria cannot be won without boots on the ground. Unlike in Iraq, where the army and Kurdish peshmergas are slowly proving their mettle, there are no obvious partners in Syria. The US wants to train 5,000 fighters by the end of the year, a modest number compared to the estimated 30,000-strong Islamic State.
“If the intention is to destroy the Islamic State, that can only be done on the ground and in Syria,” says Jonathan Spyer, an analyst at the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Israel. He warns the targeting of Jabhat al-Nusra betrays “extreme strategic confusion” as the US backs rebels that are fighting alongside the group in the outskirts of Damascus.
Moderates could be swept away
Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Centre, warns that moderate opponents of the Assad regime risk being swept away and that no military strategy can be successful without a parallel political track.
“As long as there is no parallel effort to change the situation in Damascus, not necessarily collapse the entire regime but certainly to get rid of Assad and his family and those around him… this whole strategy will fail,” says Mr. Shaikh. So far, the United States has sought to isolate the regime of President Assad.
Damascus, whose claims to national sovereignty took a beating overnight, sought to put on a “brave face,” saying their envoy had been informed at the United Nations. Assad said Tuesday he supports any international effort against terrorism.
Mutlu Civiroglu, a Washington-based analyst focused on Syrian and Kurdish affairs, says the decision to strike in Syria now was motivated in part by the dramatic exodus of Kurds fleeing an IS offensive against the strategic border town of Kobane. He said the West should ally with Kurdish fighters in Syria to repel IS, as it has done in Iraq.
In Kobane, Syrian Kurdish forces, reinforced by hundreds of Kurdish fighters crossing from Turkey, appear to be standing their ground. “IS did not advance today. But there are still very fierce clashes in the outskirts of the city,” reports a relief worker who declined to be named.