U.S. jets and remotely piloted drones, along with planes from Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, hit Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq Saturday, U.S. military officials said.
The attacks were latest in the U.S.-led effort to rollback Islamic State, which has presented a formidable fighting force that has seized swaths of Iraq and worried nations across Europe and the Middle East.
In Syria, allied aircraft hit seven sites, including an Islamic State vehicle near Al-Hasakah, along with several garrison buildings and a command and control facility near Manbij. Another building and two armed vehicles near Kobani were also destroyed, the Defense Department said in a statement.
An airfield, a garrison and a training camp near Raqqa, an Islamic State stronghold, were also hit.
Three airstrikes in near Irbil, in Iraq, meanwhile, destroyed four Islamic State vehicles and destroyed a fighting position, the department said.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported 31 massive explosions in Raqqa, and casualties were reported.
Explosions were heard also near al-Etihad University in Aleppo province, an Islamic State headquarters, and areas east of the desert town of Palmyra in Homs province.
U.S. jets, bombers, drones and ship-launched missiles have been pounding Islamic State targets for days now, along with allied Arab forces.
French jets have also conducted strikes, and on Friday, the list of participating militaries grew as Britain, Denmark and Belgium announced they would join the effort. Britain carried out its first combat mission in Iraq Saturday, but the Ministry of Defense said no targets were identified as requiring immediate air attack. Australia and the Netherlands are also participating.
Turkey Gets Involved
Turkey’s president said Turkish troops could be used to set up a secure zone in Syria, if there was an international agreement to establish such a haven for refugees fleeing Islamic State fighters
Turkey, a NATO member, has been struggling to balance its interests in preventing further destabilization from Syria. A 11-day assault by militants on Kobani, a Syrian town also known as Ayn al-Arab, has sent 160,000 refugees across the border into Turkey since last week in the biggest such exodus in 3-and-a-half years of civil war. Hundreds of Kurdish fighters inside Turkey have also poured into the Syrian town to defend it.
Activists and Kurdish officials on Saturday said Islamic State fighters fired rockets into Kobani. At least 12 people were reported wounded in the rocket attacks, while no immediate casualty estimates were released for the coalition strikes.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said negotiations were underway to determine how and by which countries the airstrikes and a potential ground operation would be undertaken, and that Turkey is ready to take part.
“In the distribution of responsibilities, every country will have a certain duty. Whatever is Turkey’s role, Turkey will play it,” he was quoted as saying said by the Hurriyet newspaper.
“You can’t finish off such a terrorist organization only with airstrikes. Ground forces are complementary … You have to look at it as a whole. Obviously I’m not a soldier but the air [operations] are logistical,” he said. “If there’s no ground force, it would not be permanent.”
On Friday, U.S. Central Command said four Islamic State tanks were destroyed in Syria’s Deir el-Zour province. The Syrian Observatory said oil facilities were the apparent target of overnight strikes in Deir el-Zour and a command center was also hit.
In northern Syria, video posted to social media appeared to show Kurdish fighters launching attacks on Islamic State targets near Kobani.
In Iraq, seven strikes targeted armored vehicles, including three Humvees and a mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle, U.S. military officials said. Several other vehicles and outposts were hit in strikes near Kirkuk, west of Baghdad, and near al-Qaim.
US Trainers in Saudi Arabia
U.S. teams tasked with training select Syrian rebel groups were beginning to arrive in Saudi Arabia in place to start their work. The teams are part of U.S. efforts to train elements of the Syrian opposition to fight Islamic State militants.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Friday opposition fighters were being vetted by U.S. military, diplomatic, and intelligence experts to determine who will be trained, but the rebel groups will choose their own leadership.
More than 200 airstrikes have been conducted in Iraq this week and 43 in Syria, Hagel said.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the military campaign is an Iraq-first strategy, but not an Iraq-only strategy. He said that any ground troops he might recommend be used in Iraq in the future would be international, and comprised of Iraqis, Kurds and Syrian opposition forces.
Russia Again Condemns Strikes
At the United Nations General Assembly on Saturday, Russia — Syrian President Assad’s lone ally among major powers — voiced new criticism of the U.S. military initiatives.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in a thinly veiled reference to coalition airstrikes on Syrian soil, accused Washington of resorting to “military interference” to defend its interests. Moscow has repeatedly argued that the West should cooperate with the Syrian president in battling the extremists. On Friday, Lavrov called airstrikes in Syria a violation of international law because the US-led coalition has not received permission from Damascus.
The coalition should seek Syrian cooperation not only for legal reasons but to ensure “the efficiency of the effort,” Lavrov said.
Lavrov’s statements have been the strongest criticism yet at the U.N. General Assembly, where most speakers have spoken out against the Islamic State.
Jordanian King Abdullah on Saturday the threat of Islamic State militants demands a “coalition of the determined” to combat and defeat them with “consistency and resolve.”
United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan told the U.N. General Assembly Saturday that Islamic State threats are expanding beyond the Middle East. Speaking through an interpreter, he said “the current collective action against the threat of ISIS and other terrorist groups reflects the international community’s common conviction of the necessity to confront this imminent danger.
“Civilized communities have no other option but to succeed completely in this test and eliminate this threat,” said Al-Nahyan, who then called for increased support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s more moderate opponents.
On Friday, U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice met at the White house with a delegation from the Syrian Opposition Coalition, including that group’s president, Hadi al-Bahra. They discussed ways the United States can support the moderate opposition to counter Islamic State and strengthen the prospects for a political transition in Syria.
The Islamic State militants, comprising local and foreign fighters and espousing a severe form of Islam, swept through large parts of Iraq in June, defeating U.S.-trained-and-armed Iraqi forces, seizing large amounts of their weapons. It already controlled large amounts of territory in Syria, where it is fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.
The campaign has brought Washington back to the battlefield of Iraq that it left in 2011 and into Syria for the first time after avoiding involvement in a war that began the same year.