On Monday evening, at roughly 8:30 p.m. Eastern Time, the Pentagon confirmed the United States conducted a series of 20 airstrikes in Syria on ISIS targets in conjunction with “partner nation forces,” including Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Jordan. This coalition conducted additional airstrikes on Tuesday and Wednesday. These nations conducted the actual bombings with the exception of Qatar, which provided unspecified support. The bombings in Syria were foreshadowed by President Obama in a Sept. 20 radio address where he stated, “If you threaten America you will find no safe haven.”
The strikes were conducted by military bombers with additional firepower coming from unmanned drones and missiles from U.S. navy ships, including the USS George H.W. Bush located in the Persian Gulf.
The initial strikes were conducted in the city of Raqqa in eastern Syria and targeted “command and control facilities, headquarter facilities, fuel depots, and training camps.” Upwards of 60 percent of ISIS forces are located in Syria. The bombing marked the first time F-22s have been used in this type of combat role.
Days before the initial bombing, in testimony before Congress, Gen. Martin Dempsey stated, ”This won’t look like a shock-and-awe campaign, because that’s simply not how ISIL is organized, but it will be a persistent and sustainable campaign.” Sec. of Defense Chuck Hagel elaborated on the plan, stating the campaign “includes targeted actions against ISIL safe havens in Syria, including its command and control logistics capabilities and infrastructure.”
The bombing campaign came the same day a 42 minute audiotape was released by ISIS’s central spokesman, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani. The tape featured al-Adnani calling for attacks on the United States in retaliation for the military strategy against ISIS announced by Obama in a primetime address on September 10.
Also attacked in Syria was the Khorasan group, an al-Qaida affiliate that Pentagon officials state was plotting an attack on American soil involving the bombing of U.S. airliners. Khorasan group is a subset of a larger terrorist network in Syria known as al-Nusra, a group in Syria seeking to depose the current Syrian government.
Syria itself was not a party engaging in the bombings, but was given advance warning of the impending airstrikes by the United States through Syrian’s U.N ambassador. Pentagon sources believe the Syrian government will not attack the U.S. or its allies conducting the strikes, predominantly because the Syrian government also opposes ISIS. The Syrian government has previously stated any airstrikes within its borders, by any nation, would be seen as “an act of aggression.” The Syrian government opposes ISIS and has conducted its own military campaign against the threat, but rejects any foreign intervention.
Over 200 strikes have been conduct in Iraq thus far, a figure similar to the number of strikes conducted monthly at the height of the Afghanistan War. The strikes in Syria are different from the strikes conducted in Iraq in the sense that the U.S. doesn’t clearly know what ground forces will be in a position to capitalize on the degradation of ISIS facilities. In Iraq, tribal militants, Kurds armed by the U.S. and Iraqi government, as well as the Iraqi military are there to advance on bombed ISIS targets. Earlier this month, Congress voted on a bill to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels to fight ISIS. The Pentagon has stated that it’ll take at least eight months to train these Syrian rebels to the degree that they are vetted and able to coordinate with each other and provide communicated assistance to the United States and its allies.
France became the first European country to join the United States in the Iraq bombing campaign. In retaliation of the move, ISIS beheaded a French tourist in Algeria. Additional allies, including the United Kingdom, France, Australia and the Netherlands have all approved measures to join the bombing campaign in Iraq, but not in Syria.
Despite the attacks in Syria, Iraq has also remained a global “hot spot” in the fight against ISIS. On Thursday, the Prime Minister of Iraq created waves when he stated that ISIS was plotting an attack on New York City subway stations, a fact disputed by U.S. intelligence agencies. The same day, FBI director James Comey stated the United States has identified the executioner featured in the series of beheadings, but declined to make the name 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,” Obama said in televised remarks from the White House.
Obama used the United Nations General Assembly meeting to articulate his battle plans against ISIS, starting by alluding to the failure of terrorism in the past, “In the 20th century, terror was used by all manner of groups who failed to come to power through public support. But in this century, we have faced a more lethal and ideological brand of terrorists who have perverted one of the world’s great religions. With access to technology that allows small groups to do great harm, they have embraced a nightmarish vision that would divide the world into adherents and infidels—killing as many innocent civilians as possible; and employing the most brutal methods to intimidate people within their communities.”
He continued, “I have made it clear that America will not base our entire foreign policy on reacting to terrorism. Rather, we have waged a focused campaign against al-Qaida and its associated forces – taking out their leaders, and denying them the safe-havens they rely upon. At the same time, we have reaffirmed that the United States is not and never will be at war with Islam. Islam teaches peace. Muslims the world over aspire to live with dignity and a sense of justice. And when it comes to America and Islam, there is no us and them – there is only us, because millions of Muslim Americans are part of the fabric of our country.”
Obama’s speech echoed themes promoted by former President George W. Bush. Both presidents used the U.N as an international forum to rally world sentiment against radical Islamist groups, argued for a forceful response to terrorism and also stressed their belief that Islam is not an inherently violent religion.
When Obama first began to address the specific threat of ISIS in his speech, he outlined similar goals to those laid out in his speech delivered on September 10, stating, “As an international community, we must meet this challenge with a focus on four areas. First, the terrorist group known as ISIL must be degraded, and ultimately destroyed.”
Obama then proceeded to make the moral case for the offensive against ISIS, stating “No God condones this terror. No grievance justifies these actions. There can be no reasoning – no negotiation – with this brand of evil. The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force. So the United States of America will work with a broad coalition to dismantle this network of death.”
In perhaps the most critical policy point of his speech, Obama highlighted the existing international coalition developed to fight ISIS while also asking for more cooperation from the world community. “In this effort, we do not act alone. Nor do we intend to send U.S. troops to occupy foreign lands. Instead, we will support Iraqis and Syrians fighting to reclaim their communities. We will use our military might in a campaign of airstrikes to roll back ISIL. We will train and equip forces fighting against these terrorists on the ground. We will work to cut off their financing, and to stop the flow of fighters into and out of the region. Already, over 40 nations have offered to join this coalition. Today, I ask the world to join in this effort. Those who have joined ISIL should leave the battlefield while they can. Those who continue to fight for a hateful cause will find they are increasingly alone. For we will not succumb to threats; and we will demonstrate that the future belongs to those who build – not those who destroy.
On September 17, Sec. of State John Kerry announced a total of 40 nations had agreed to contribute resources to fight ISIL, and it was this number cited by Obama in his address to the UN general assembly. By September 25th, the number of nations committing to fighting the threat ballooned to 62.
Lastly, Obama urged the international community, as well as Muslims worldwide, to stand up against ISIS, concluding, “It is time for the world – especially Muslim communities – to explicitly, forcefully, and consistently reject the ideology of al-Qaida and ISIL.”
Obama was not the only world leader to focus a significant portion of his remarks on the terror group. In his speech, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani expressed dissatisfaction with the Syrian airstrikes, claiming they violate international law, and made the broader point that Western military interventionism was a critical motivating factor in the spread of terrorism in the Middle East. Rouhani singled out unnamed intelligence agencies, stating, “Certain intelligence agencies have put blades in the hands of madmen, who now spare no one.” This is perhaps best seen as a critique of the U.S. plan to arm and train “moderate rebels” in Syria to fight ISIS.
On the issue of Congress voting to authorize the use of military force, House Speaker John Boehner remained receptive to the idea, but only after the midterm elections, stating “Doing this with a whole group of members who are on their way out the door, I don’t think that is the right way to handle this,” John Boehner.
“This will not be an easy or brief effort. We are at the beginning, not the end of our effort to degrade and destroy ISIL,” Sec. of Defense Chuck Hagel summarized later in the week.