Around 9 PM eastern standard time, Americans suddenly learned that their government had delivered on its previous threat, launching airstrikes into Syria. But as they awoke on the following Tuesday, it became clear that rather than just targeting the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), there was also a second target on the list. Details about the simultaneous campaigns are still slowly being revealed, but here’s the answer to a few of the questions that you might have regarding the strikes.
What exactly did we hit?
Though the impetus for taking action against ISIS was the fall of several cities in Iraq, the White House has been laying the ground work for expanding the campaign beyond Iraq for weeks now. The civil war in Syria has all but rendered the border between it and Iraq all but useless, allowing ISIS members to cross back and forth freely. Most of ISIS’ assets, including its headquarters in Raqqa and several oil fields, were located in Syria as well. Because of that, when addressing to the nation earlier this month, President Obama pledged to not only strike out at ISIS in Iraq, where planes have been bombing targets since June, but also in Syria as well.
The U.S. followed through on that pledge around four in the morning Damascus time. “A mix of fighters, bombers, remotely piloted aircraft and Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles conducted 14 strikes against ISIL targets,” a news release from U.S. Central Command said on Tuesday, using the government’s preferred acronym for ISIS. The strikes “destroyed or damaged multiple ISIL targets” in several cities across Syria’s east, where ISIS is the strongest. Those targets included “ISIL fighters, training compounds, headquarters and command and control facilities, storage facilities, a finance center, supply trucks and armed vehicles.” According Syrian opposition activists, among the buildings hit within Raqqa were “a post office, a recruitment center and a building in the governor’s compound” that serves as ISIS’ headquarters.
Who took part in the attack?
The U.S. didn’t act by itself in striking out against ISIS. Though Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has spoken of a ‘core coalition’ against ISIS, mostly composed of NATO allies, it was instead a collection of Arab countries who joined in actually taking military action in Syria. According to U.S. CENTCOM, that included Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. It’s unclear whether Qatar actually conducted airstrikes itself, but reports indicate the other four actually flew aircraft alongside the U.S. in striking against Syria. All five members had ““as appropriate, joining in the many aspects of a coordinated military campaign”” previously signed the so-called Jeddah Communique, promising they would be “as appropriate, joining in the many aspects of a coordinated military campaign” against ISIS.
But there was a second group of targets?
At the same time that the U.S. was taking action against ISIS, a separate mission was also taking place. For the past several weeks, targeted leaks referring to a group of al-Qaeda veterans known as the Khorasan Group have been appearing in media outlets, warning of the threat it presented to the United States. Though experts argue over whether it constitutes a separate group allied with al-Qaeda or part of al-Qaeda’s executive office travelling abroad, what is clear is that the group was working closely with Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s affiliate operating in Syria. Earlier reports indicated that the group was working with Nusra to find foreigners with Western passports to be recruited to carry bombs back to their home country. The group was also working with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the branch operating out of Yemen and the home to some of the most sophisticated bombmakers in the network, to develop a new form of explosive for carrying out attacks.
It appears now that the U.S. used the opportunity presented in striking ISIS targets to also target the members of Khorasan operating within Syria. According to the Defense Department, the U.S. was acting to “to disrupt the imminent attack plotting against the United States and Western interests,” launching eight strikes at targets west of the Syrian city of Aleppo. American officials described that plot to ABC on Tuesday morning, saying that the group was in the “final stages of fabricating cutting edge explosive devices in toothpaste tubes or clothing dipped in liquid explosive.” The side mission, the U.S. has said, was undertaken by the U.S. alone, unlike the rest of the strikes in Syria.
Did Assad give his tacit approval?
Though Syria’s air defenses are much weaker in the east of the country, where rebels and ISIS have managed to hold a substantial amount of territory, it appears that Syria acquiesced to the U.S. and other countries launching strikes within the country. For weeks now, the U.S. has insisted that it would not coordinate with Assad’s government in striking ISIS, even as Damascus attempted to convince Washington that it is a willing partner. Though the U.S. maintains that it didn’t coordinate with Syria or ask for Assad’s permission, the Syrian government has said its “UN envoy was informed of the attacks before they began and John Kerry, the US secretary of state, wrote to the Syrian foreign minister, via Iraq, informing him of the US intention to strike Isis.”
But the U.S. pushed back on this on Tuesday morning, in the form of a statement from State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki. “We warned Syria not to engage U.S. aircraft,” Psaki said of the communication between Damascus and Washington, conducted as Syria said through the countries’ U.N. ambassadors. “We did not request the regime’s permission. We did not coordination our actions with the Syrian government. We did not provide advance notifications to the Syrians at a military level, or give any indication of our timing on specific targets. Secretary Kerry did not send a letter to the Syrian regime.”
Was it legal?
That depends on who you ask, which of the two targets is being referred to, and whether you are asking about the legality under domestic or international law. The easier of the two cases is the strikes against Khorasan group, given their direct ties to Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaeda. Though not how the 2001 Authorization Against the Use of Military Force (AUMF) was intended to be used, the U.S. government has long argued that not just Al Qaeda but also its “affiliated groups” were able to be targeted legally. Under international law, the U.S. also has a right to self-defense, which it appears to be invoking based on the “imminent threat” that the group presented.
Much more difficult is whether the strikes against ISIS are similarly permitted. The White House has argued that ISIS, because it started out as Al Qaeda in Iraq before a messy divorce with the group, still falls under the AUMF. But even lawyers who normally support an expansive reading of the executive’s ability to conduct war find this argument weak, leaving the strikes on shaky footing under domestic law. As the Los Angeles Times noted this morning, the U.S. also isn’t on the most solid ground internationally-speaking. Unlike in Iraq, which invited the U.S. to assist it in a form of collective self-defense, no such request has come from Syria. And most importantly, because officials have repeatedly said that ISIS is not a direct threat to the U.S. as of now, that rules out most of the arguments in favor of self-defense.
What happens next?
So far, Washington is mum on just how long the United States plans to keep up the strikes in Syria, though reports indicate that they will not continue at the tempo seen last night. U.S. Central Command has said only that “the U.S. military will continue to conduct targeted airstrikes against ISIL in Syria and Iraq as local forces go on the offensive against this terrorist group.” As for the people living in the areas that are now the target of these airstrikes, residents are reportedly fleeing Raqqa as quickly as possible. “There is an exodus out of Raqqa as we speak,” one resident told Reuters. “It started in the early hours of the day after the strikes. People are fleeing towards the countryside.” As the civil war in Syria has already caused over half of its population to flee their homes, it can only be assumed that the new campaign against ISIS will only exacerbate the refugee crisis the region has struggled to contain.