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US Launches First Airstrikes in Syria Against Islamic State

An F/A-18C Hornet, attached to Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 87, prepares to launch from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) to conduct strike missions against ISIL targets. (U.S. Navy photo)
An F/A-18C Hornet, attached to Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 87, prepares to launch from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) to conduct strike missions against ISIL targets. (U.S. Navy photo)

UPDATED at 8:32 a.m. EST

U.S. and Arab partner nations launched the first airstrikes against 14 Islamic State targets in Syria Monday night with a compilation of stealth fighter jets, bombers, drones and Tomahawk cruise missiles.

The airstrikes and cruise missiles "destroyed or damaged" ISIL targets spread across Syria near the towns of Ar Raqqah, Dayr az Zawr, Al Hasakah, and Abu Kamal, according to U.S. military officials. Military planners targeted "training compounds, headquarters, storage facilities, a finance center, supply trucks and armed vehicles," officials said.

The U.S. launched 47 Tomahawk cruise missiles from the U.S. Navy guided missile cruisers Arleigh Burke and Philippine Sea deployed with the George H.W. Bush carrier strike group in the Persian Gulf. All aircraft that entered Syrian airspace, exited safely, U.S. officials said.

The U.S. was joined by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in Monday's airstrikes inside Syria. Notably, the U.S. was joined solely by other Middle Eastern nations and no NATO partners.

Along with the strikes against the Islamic State, the U.S. also launched eight airstrikes against an Al Qaeda group in Syria called the Khorasan Group, U.S. Central Command officials said.

This group of militants located west of Aleppo was plotting an "imminent attack" against the U.S. and Western interests, officials said. The U.S. emphasized that it acted alone in these airstrikes that targeted training camps, an explosives and munitions production facility, a communication building, and command and control facilities.

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Pentagon officials said Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of U.S. Central Command, made the decision to order the strikes early Monday under authorization granted by President Obama. The airstrikes were the first inside Syrian borders since the U.S. expanded its military campaign against the terrorist group that is also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL.

"I can confirm that U.S. military and partner nation forces are undertaking military action against ISIL terrorists in Syria using a mix of fighter, bomber and Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles," said Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby, in a statement. "Given that these operations are ongoing, we are not in a position to provide additional details at this time."

The airstrikes were part of the expanded military campaign that President Barack Obama's authorized nearly two weeks ago in order to disrupt and destroy the Islamic State militants, who have slaughtered thousands of people, beheaded Westerners, including two American journalists, and captured a large swath of territory stretching from within Syria to land across northern and western Iraq.

The U.S. Air Force's F-22 stealth fighter jets took part in the airstrikes, which marks the first airstrike the fifth generation fighters have taken part in since they entered the service in 2005.

Along with the F-22, U.S. Navy F-18s and U.S. Air Force F-15E and F-16 fighters, and B-1B bombers took part in the airstrike.

People living in the town of Raqqa reported hearing fighter jets flying overhead on Twitter Monday night. Defense officials have said the U.S. would plan to hit the town that houses many of the Islamic States' most influential leaders.

U.S. military leaders told Congress last week that the Pentagon had planned to strike the Islamic States' training camps, command and control centers and re-supply facilities.

"We will be prepared to strike ISIL targets in Syria that degrade ISIL's capabilities," Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told senators last week, using one of the acronyms for the Islamic State group. "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."

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that the plan "includes targeted actions against ISIL safe havens in Syria, including its command and control logistics capabilities and infrastructure." He said he and Dempsey approved the plan.

The Syrian foreign ministry said on Tuesday that the United States informed Damascus' envoy to the United Nations before launching Monday's airstrikes.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime has been fighting the Islamic State as part of the country's civil war for that past three years. Obama promised U.S. forces would not cooperate with Assad as part of the expanded military campaign against the Islamic State and warned Assad from interfering.

Thus far, there is no indication that Syrian air defenses responded to the U.S. warplanes flying inside Syrian air space. Syria has one of the most formidable air defense networks in the region. However, most of the surface-to-air missile systems are located near Damascus. In 2012, the Syrian military shot down a Turkish RF-4E reconnaissance jet flying over Syrian airspace.

CIA officials have estimated that the Islamic State has about 31,000 fighters. Pentagon leaders estimated that about two-thirds of those militants resided in Syria.

In a speech Sept. 10, Obama vowed to go after the Islamic State militants wherever they may be. And his military and defense leaders told Congress last week that airstrikes within Syria are meant to disrupt the group's momentum and provide time for the U.S. and allies to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels.

The U.S. military has been launching targeted airstrikes in Iraq since August, focusing specifically on attacks to protect U.S. interests and personnel, assist Iraqi refugees and secure critical infrastructure. Last week, as part of the newly expanded campaign, the U.S. began going after militant targets across Iraq, including enemy fighters, outposts, equipment and weapons.

To date U.S. fighter aircraft, bombers and drones have launched about 194 airstrikes within Iraq. CentCom officials said Tuesday the U.S. launched more airstrikes against the Islamic State inside Iraq near Kirkuk. The airstrikes destroyed two Humvees, an armed vehicle and a "fighting position," officials said.

Urged on by the White House and U.S. defense and military officials, Congress passed legislation late last week authorizing the military to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels. Obama signed the bill into law Friday, providing $500 million for the U.S. to train about 5,000 rebels over the next year.

U.S. leaders have also been crisscrossing the globe trying to build a broad international coalition of nations, including Arab countries, to go after the Islamic State group and help train and equip the Iraqi security forces and the Syrian rebels.

The militant group, meanwhile, has threatened retribution. Its spokesman, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, said in a 42-minute audio statement released Sunday that the fighters were ready to battle the U.S.-led military coalition and called for attacks at home and abroad.

Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle offered their support Monday night following the announcement of the airstrikes.

"Our men and women in uniform are once again striking an enemy that threatens our freedom. I pray for their safety and the success of the mission. This is one step in what will be a long fight against ISIL. With strong coalition partners, a capable military, and a clear mission; it is a fight we can win," said Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, R-California, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

"To defeat ISIS, we must cut off the head of the snake, which exists in Syria," said Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said in a statement. "I support the administration's move to conduct airstrikes against ISIS wherever it exists."

-- Associated Press Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.

-- Michael Hoffman can be reached at Mike.Hoffman@monster.com

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