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US President Barack Obama will press for a broad international coalition to fight Islamic State militants in a speech to the United Nations today, a day after the US launched airstrikes against the group in Syria.
On Tuesday, the US and five Arab nations dropped more than 160 missiles and bombs inside Syria in the first round of what Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby called “only the beginning” of US-led strikes.
Additional airstrikes were reported overnight Wednesday, but not confirmed by the Pentagon. An organization that tracks the Syrian civil war said today that strikes were conducted in IS-controlled Syrian territory close to the border with Turkey, Reuters reports.
Mr. Obama’s UN speech comes as the president who sought to extricate the US from costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan now seeks to rally world leaders to a military campaign against IS. The group has shocked the world by seizing territory in Iraq and Syria this summer and releasing videos of beheadings and other violent reprisals.
US airstrikes have also targeted another little-known organization within Syria, the Khorasan group, which US officials said Tuesday posed a greater immediate threat to the US and Europe than IS, the New York Times reports.
In his public appearances on Tuesday, Mr. Obama cautioned again that the campaign against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, would take time. He also cited the strike on Khorasan, the first time he has mentioned the group in public. “Once again, it must be clear to anyone who would plot against America and try to do Americans harm that we will not tolerate safe havens for terrorists who threaten our people,” he said at the White House before his departure for New York.
Most officials speaking publicly on Tuesday characterized the Khorasan threat as imminent. Lt. Gen. William C. Mayville Jr., who is in charge of operations for the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, said the terrorist group was nearing “the execution phase of an attack either in Europe or the homeland.”
Obama faces criticism from some Syrian regime supporters such as Iran and Russia, who say that strikes within Syria are illegal without the approval of President Bashar al-Assad, whose regime Obama opposes. Some European allies have also questioned the legality of unauthorized military action in Syria.
US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power outlined the US argument for strikes within Syria in a letter to the UN Secretary-General:
The Syrian regime has shown that it cannot and will not confront these safe havens effectively itself," Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., wrote in a letter obtained by CNN. "Accordingly, the United States has initiated necessary and proportionate military actions in Syria."
Reporting from Gazientep, Turkey, near the border with Syria, The Christian Science Monitor's correspondent Dominique Soguel writes that some analysts in the region warn that the US-led strikes could aid IS:
“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.”
A resident of Raqqa, Syria, where some of the strikes Tuesday took place, described the scene to the Monitor:
“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.
At the UN today, Obama will chair an afternoon meeting of the Security Council after his morning address. He will seek to pass a resolution that will “oblige countries to prosecute its citizens who go to the Middle East to fight for the Islamic State,” the New York Times reports.