Syria Airstrikes Targeted Command Sites, Training Facilities

Sep 23, 2014
Originally published on September 26, 2014 3:30 pm
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The U.S. military is still trying to assess the results of airstrikes launched overnight inside Syria. The targets included command sites and training facilities of the group calls itself the Islamic State. The strikes represent the latest phase of a strategy the president outlined to go after the group.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I made clear, that as part of this campaign, the United States would take action against targets in both Iraq and Syria. So that these terrorists can't find safe haven anywhere.

SIEGEL: President Obama speaking earlier today at the White House. The airstrikes also targeted another group, said to pose a threat to the West. It's called the Khorasan group and we'll hear more about it in a moment. First though, we're joined by NPR Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman. And, Tom, what do we know about the airstrikes? What did they hit? And how effective were they?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, Robert, Pentagon officials said the airstrikes were very successful but they're still a formal assessment of the damage. Now, they hit everything from barracks and a financial center to armored vehicles and supplies. There were three waves of bombing - we're told - using the F-22 fighters, F-18s, F-16s, B-1 bombers.

And the airstrikes included Tomahawk missiles, launched from U.S. ships in the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea. The Pentagon is saying there's no indication of any civilian casualties at this point. But, of course, it's still early. And officials also said last night's strikes are only the beginning. This could go on for several years they're saying.

SIEGEL: For a long time. The administration says it's built a coalition that includes Arab states that they go after, the group that calls itself the Islamic State. And some of those Arab partners did take part, I gather, in the airstrike mission.

BOWMAN: That's right. Five Arab states took part. We know the United Arab Emirates - the UAE - as well as Jordan and Bahrain took part in the airstrikes. They flew in the actual attack. Saudi Arabia and Qatar also were involved. But there's no word from their governments on their precise role.

SIEGEL: Now, given that these strikes took place inside Syria - a sovereign state - did the U.S. coordinate its actions with the government of Syria?

BOWMAN: Well, that's interesting. The U.S. said there was no coordination with Syria on targeting. But what's unusual here is just over a year ago, Robert, the U.S. was considering, of course, air strikes in Syria over Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons against his own people. Now the U.S. is conducting airstrikes in Syria but not against the government. In fact, U.S. informed the Syrian government it was going to go in and bomb these militant groups; and warned the Syrian government not to target coalition aircraft.

And a Pentagon official today says the series air defense radars were, quote, "passive" - meaning they weren't tracking the U.S. and Arab aircraft coming into Syrian airspace. And an interesting detail here, Robert, back in July - when U.S. Special Operations Forces went into Syria by helicopter to try to rescue those Western hostages in that failed mission - I'm told the Syrians picked up the U.S. aircraft with their radar and then turned it off. So apparently, they decided not to pick a fight with the U.S.

SIEGEL: As part of its larger strategy to go after the so-called Islamic State, the U.S. plans to train Syrian rebel fighters; that could take more than a year. Right now, who on the ground will take advantage of these airstrikes? What ground force would gain because of the U.S. airstrikes?

BOWMAN: Well, first of all, we're told it will take more than a year to train about 5,000 moderate Syrian rebels. So in the meantime - with the Islamic State hit by airstrikes, this Khorasan group hit by airstrikes - there are really no U.S.-backed troops to fill the void there; like you see in some of the operations in Iraq. So it's possible the current Syrian rebels on the ground could get a boost from these airstrikes. But it's also possible that Assad's forces could take advantage of these militant groups getting hit, and take back some of their lost ground.

SIEGEL: OK. That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thanks, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.