The US and and five Arab countries have launched air strikes against Islamic State group targets in Syria for the first time, using fighter jets, bombers and Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from ships in the region.
Damascus said Washington informed Syria’s United Nations envoy before the attacks began.
The strikes in a country whose three-year civil war has given the brutal militant group a safe haven were part of the expanded military campaign President Barack Obama authorised nearly two weeks ago in order to disrupt and destroy the Islamic State (IS) militants.
The group has slaughtered thousands of people, beheaded Westerners and captured a large swathe of territory stretching from within Syria to land across northern and western Iraq.
US officials said the air strikes began at about 1.30am British time, and were conducted by America, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.
The first wave of strikes finished about 90 minutes later, but the operation was expected to continue for several more hours, according to a US official.
Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon’s press secretary, said the decision to strike was made yesterday by the military. A White House official said Mr Obama was being updated.
The strikes were carried out by manned air force and navy aircraft and 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.
Some of the air strikes were against IS group targets in its self-declared capital Raqqa. Military officials have said the US would target militants’ command and control centres, re-supply facilities, training camps and other key logistical sites.
Syrian activists reported several strikes on militant targets in Raqqa. One Raqqa-based activist said they lit the night sky over the city, and there was a power cut that lasted two hours.
An anti-militant media collective called “Raqqa is being silently slaughtered” said among the targets were Islamic State buildings used as the group’s headquarters, and Brigade 93, a Syrian army base that the militants recently seized. Other air strikes targeted the town of Tabqa and Tel Abyad in Raqqa province, it said. Their claims could not be independently verified.
In Syria’s first official reaction to the attacks today, state media carried a brief statement from the foreign ministry saying that “the American side informed Syria’s permanent envoy to the UN that strikes will be launched against the Daesh ( an Arabic name for IS) organisation in Raqqa”.
Last week General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told senators: “We will be prepared to strike ISIL ( one of the acronyms for IS) targets in Syria that degrade ISIL’s capabilities.
“This won’t look like a shock-and-awe campaign, because that’s simply not how ISIL is organised, but it will be a persistent and sustainable campaign.
US defence 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 Gen Dempsey approved the plan.
The US has also been increasing its surveillance flights over Syria, getting better intelligence on potential targets and militant movements.
Military leaders have said about two-thirds of the estimated 31,000 Islamic State militants were in Syria.
In a speech on September 10, Mr Obama vowed to go after IS militants wherever they might be. And his military and defence leaders told Congress last week that air strikes within Syria were meant to disrupt the group’s momentum and provide time for the US and allies to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels.
The US military has been launching targeted air strikes in Iraq since August, focusing specifically on attacks to protect American interests and staff, assist Iraqi refugees and secure critical infrastructure. Last week, as part of the newly-expanded campaign, the US began going after militant targets across Iraq, including enemy fighters, outposts, equipment and weapons.
So far US fighter aircraft, bombers and drones have launched about 190 air strikes within Iraq.
Urged on by the White House and US defence and military officials, Congress passed legislation late last week authorising the military to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels. Mr Obama signed the bill into law on Friday, providing 500 million dollars (£307m) for the US to train about 5,000 rebels over the next year.
US leaders have also been criss-crossing the globe trying to build a broad international coalition of nations, including Arab countries, to go after the IS 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 on Sunday that the fighters were ready to battle the US-led military coalition and called for attacks at home and abroad.