WASHINGTON — The United States and allies launched airstrikes against Sunni militants in Syria early Tuesday, unleashing a torrent of cruise missiles and precision-guided bombs from the air and sea on the militants’ de facto capital of Raqqa and along the porous Iraq border.
U.S. fighter jets and armed Predator and Reaper drones, flying alongside warplanes from several Arab allies, struck a broad array of targets in territory controlled by the militants, known as the Islamic State. U.S. defense officials said the targets included weapons supplies, depots, barracks and buildings the militants use for command and control. Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired from U.S. Navy ships in the region.
“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 Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, using an alternate name for the Islamic State.
“Given that these operations are ongoing, we are not in a position to provide additional details at this time,” Kirby said in a statement Monday night in Washington. “The decision to conduct these strikes was made earlier today by the U.S. Central Command commander under authorization granted him by the commander in chief. We will provide more details later as operationally appropriate.”
The strikes are a major turning point in President Barack Obama’s war against the Islamic State and open up a risky new stage of the U.S. military campaign. Until now, the administration had bombed Islamic State targets only in Iraq, and had suggested it would be weeks if not months before the start of a bombing campaign against Islamic State targets in Syria.
The strikes came less than two weeks after Obama announced in an address to the nation that he was authorizing an expansion of the military campaign against the Islamic State.
Unlike U.S. strikes in Iraq over the past month, which have been small-bore bombings of mostly individual Islamic State targets — patrol boats and trucks — the salvo on Tuesday in Syria was the beginning of what was expected to be a sustained, hourslong bombardment at targets in the militant headquarters in Raqqa and on the border.
The strikes began after years of debate within the Obama administration about whether the United States should intervene militarily or should avoid another entanglement in a complex war in the Middle East. But the Islamic State controls a broad swath of land across both Iraq and Syria.
Defense officials said the goal of the air campaign was to deprive the Islamic State of the safe havens it enjoys in Syria. The administration’s ultimate goal, as set forth in the address Obama delivered on Sept. 10, is to recruit a global coalition to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the militants, even as Obama warned that “eradicating a cancer” like the Islamic State was a long-term challenge.