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The United States stepped up its war against the Islamic State militant group, launching air strikes on targets in Syria for the first time.
The Pentagon press secretary, rear admiral John Kirby, confirmed that the US and allied nations sent fighter jets, bomber aircraft and Tomahawk missiles in an operation against Isis that he described as “ongoing”.
A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, indicated that Raqqa, a Syrian stronghold of Isis, was among the targets of the operation, which began in the early hours of Tuesday morning local time.
The first wave of strikes finished about 90 minutes later at around 10pm EDT (2am GMT), but the operation was expected to continue for several more hours,
Airstrikes against Isis targets in Iraq, which began on 7 August, now occur daily. Of Syria, the official said: “If we need to go daily, we will.”
The US was joined in the Syria operation by Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, an official said.
The strikes were carried out by manned air force and navy aircraft, while the Tomahawk missiles were launched from US ships in the northern Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. The aircraft carrier USS George HW Bush is in the Gulf.
Kirby said the strikes were ordered by army general Lloyd Austin, the commander of US forces in the Middle East and South Asia “under authorisation granted to him by the commander in chief”.
President Barack Obama met Austin last week to discuss plans to expand the air war into Syria. There have been almost 200 airstrikes in Iraq so far.
The White House has been under mounting pressure in recent days to show other countries, particularly in the Arab world, are willing to take an active military role in its coalition against Isis.
Last week secretary of state John Kerry promised sceptical lawmakers in a series of briefings on Capitol Hill that he would be in a position to name the unspecified active partners before the end of the week.
But it was the upcoming United Nations general assembly in New York, at which Obama will chair a meeting of the security council, that the politics of having countries like Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates will be crucial for the US.
Obama is hoping to use the special session to secure international backing for a tough resolution against Isis, including an international travel ban on foreign fighters travelling from other countries.
The strikes come months in advance of any support on the ground. With Obama ruling out US combat troops for now, there is no capable ground force in eastern Syria to capitalise on the air strikes by seizing territory back from Isis.
The US plan is to train a force of Syrian rebels for that purpose in Saudi Arabia, but the training has not begun yet. The Pentagon estimates that it will take at least eight months for the first units to be ready.
Asked on Friday by the Guardian what an air campaign in Syria can accomplish without a ground component, Kirby said: “What airstrikes would enable us to do is to continue to put pressure on them, particularly the safe havens and sanctuaries that they enjoy in Syria.”
The airstrikes are a long-telegraphed move by the Pentagon, albeit a reluctant one for many senior military officers and the White House. In June, after Isis overran the Iraqi city of Mosul, US defence officials speculated that an American reprisal would likely need to target the group in Syria as well as Iraq, in order to inflict lasting damage.
Obama said in a televised address on 10 September that he would expand the US war against Isis into Syria, reversing a longstanding caution against involving the US in the bloody confusion of Syria’s civil war. Political and media pressure on Obama to launch airstrikes against Isis and then expand the war into Syria has been intense, despite much scepticism on Capitol Hill of Obama’s war strategy.
The escalation of the war into Syria comes without explicit congressional authorisation. Last week, Congress agreed to provide $500m requested by Obama for training Syrian rebels, but deferred a vote specifically on the war against Isis until after November’s legislative elections. Obama has asserted that the 2001 Authorisation to Use Military Force against al-Qaida provides him with sufficient legal authority, something few legal scholars have embraced, owing to al-Qaida’s public rejection of Isis earlier this year.
The US has denied speculation that it will work with the government of Bashar al-Assad against Isis, a common enemy. Syria’s use of chemical weapons in its protracted civil war had earlier led Obama to consider strikes against the Assad regime. Now, the US finds itself in the position of conducting an operation that could potentially deliver strategic benefits to Assad.
General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, has warned that Assad’s air defences - mostly configured on Syria’s western coast, far from land held by Isis - are formidable, yet there is no indication that US and allied planes were under attack from Assad in the latest operation.