To paraphrase the words of Michael Corleone, last night we took care of all family business — or at least began the process. While airstrikes from the US and its coalition partners targeted the command and control centers for ISIS in Raqqa and its environs in northern Syria, the US took the opportunity to hit an al-Qaeda affiliate near Aleppo that American intel sees as the emerging threat to the homeland. US forces acting alone launched eight strikes on suspected Khorasan facilities:
American airstrikes in Syria have taken out members of a shadowy al Qaeda unit known as the Khorasan Group who were was planning “imminent” attacks against targets including the U.S. homeland, the Pentagon said today.
Pentagon spokesperson Rear Admiral John Kirby declined to go into specifics, but told ABC News’ George Stephanopolous there was “active plotting against the U.S. homeland,” but that the “individuals [who] were plotting and planning it have been eliminated.”
The Khorasan Group — consisting of about 50 or so hardened fighters of mixed past and current jihadi affiliations — has been holed up in Aleppo, Syria under the protection of al Qaeda’s official wing in the country, Jabhat al-Nusra, developing cutting edge weapons of terror with the help of al Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate to strike Western civilian aviation targets, according to a half-dozen officials with knowledge of the group who spoke to ABC News.
The U.S. — acting alone rather than with Arab coalition partners such as in the ISIS strikes — undertook at least eight strikes on the Khorasan Group’s hideouts Monday night in the Aleppo area west of the ISIS strongholds in Raqqa, which were hammered in the sudden air offensive, U.S. Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East, said in a statement.
The strikes on the Khorasan Group were made “to disrupt the imminent attack plotting against the United States and Western interests conducted by a network of seasoned al Qaeda veterans… who have established a safe haven in Syria to develop external attacks, construct and test improvised explosive devices and recruit Westerners to conduct operations,” Centcom said.
Earlier today, ABC reports that the Pentagon considers the bombing runs a success, although it will take several days for a full bomb-damage assessment that can tell us just what ISIS functions we either destroyed or damaged. That initial assessment wasn’t specific to the Khorasan group, but to the overall operation launched last night.
When the operation started, reporters wondered why the Syrian anti-aircraft defense systems seemed so quiet. The Assad government in Damascus solved the mild mystery this morning, acknowledging that US Secretary of State John Kerry had notified them hours in advance of the air strikes. It’s unclear whether that warning included Aleppo, however:
Syria said on Tuesday that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had told the Damascus government that the United States and its allies were about to attack Islamist fighters in Syria, hours before the air strikes took place.
Damascus, which had said any air strikes on Syria must have its approval, did not condemn the attacks launched by the United States with the help of Gulf states and Jordan against Islamic State and al Qaeda-affiliated militants.
A Syrian analyst interviewed on tightly-controlled Syrian state TV said the air strikes did not amount to an act of aggression because the government had been notified in advance. …
“The foreign minister received a letter from his American counterpart via the Iraqi foreign minister, in which he informed him that the United States and some of its allies would target (Islamic State) in Syria,” the foreign ministry said in the statement. “That was hours before the raids started.”
In the statement, Damascus vowed to keep up its own campaign against Islamic State that has seized large areas of northern and eastern Syria. It said it would continue to target the group in areas hit in the U.S.-led raids on Tuesday.
Syria took care not to endorse the US-led coalition’s air strikes, but they’re not exactly protesting them, either. Bashar al-Assad probably preferred ISIS to other less-radical groups in the short run because it made his position internationally that much more attractive as an alternative. Now, though, ISIS has grown too powerful for him to defeat on his own. Besides, they have served Assad’s purpose; now the world is much more focused on his enemies than on him.
That didn’t stop Russia from protesting the air strikes. Vladimir Putin scolded the US for not getting Assad’s explicit permission for the operation, although Assad doesn’t seem too unhappy with it so far:
As the United States launches airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria, Russia is condemning the move, and hedging support for the attacks so long as they proceed without the Syrian government’s consent.
The Kremlin has no trouble with the intended target — like the United States, Russia wants the Islamic State destroyed and thinks it must be defeated in Syria and Iraq.
But as Syria’s unofficial patron and interlocutor in international discussions about how to confront the Islamic State, Russia is insistent that U.S. measures to target militants in Syria lack authority without buy-in from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — a point Russian President Vladimir Putin stressed to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon Tuesday.
On the other hand, the Russians make a pretty good point about the fecklessness of US policy in the region over the last three years:
At a Paris summit last week to discuss the Islamic State, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reminded Western countries that Russia has “been talking for a long time” about the potential for terrorism in the wake of the Arab Spring, “when the aim of overthrowing regimes was raised above the common goal of preventing the spread of the terrorist threat.”
In Lavrov’s calculus, the Islamic State is the legacy of years of U.S. Middle-Eastern policy and only the latest evidence that the West never should have tried to distinguish “between ‘bad’ and ‘good’ terrorists” opposing Assad’s rule in Syria — or anywhere else. Russians were surprised and angered when NATO forces authorized to protect civilians in Libya helped to topple dictator Moammar Gaddafi in 2011, and often cite Libya, now a playground for warring militias, as a reason to be suspicious of U.S. actions in Syria.
True, except that this time we’re actually hitting the terrorist side of the equation. It’s the exact opposite of what took place in Libya, where we managed to turn a state that was cooperative on fighting terrorism into Somalia On The Mediterranean. For now, at least, the US and its coalition are fighting state-destabilizing terrorists rather than launching state-destabilizing attacks on the dictatorship that might keep a lid on the extremists. Russia worries that the coalition might turn its guns on Assad in the future, and given the US rhetoric last year and Barack Obama’s track record in Libya, that concern is understandable. But if Assad’s not complaining, it’s not clear why Putin is.