Syria says Washington informed it before strikes
DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) -- Syria said Tuesday that Washington informed President Bashar Assad's government of imminent U.S. airstrikes against the Islamic State group, hours before an American-led military coalition pounded the extremists' strongholds across northern and eastern Syria.
The opening salvo in the aerial operation against the Islamic State group marks the start of what President Barack Obama has warned will be a lengthy campaign that aims to degrade and ultimately defeat the extremists who have seized control of a huge swath of territory spanning the Syria-Iraq border.
Syrian officials have long insisted that any strikes against the Islamic State group inside their country should come only after coordination with Damascus, warning that moving without Damascus' consent would be an act of aggression against Syria and a breach of the country's sovereignty.
Just hours after the strikes started, Syria's Foreign Ministry said in a statement Tuesday that Washington told Damascus' envoy to the United Nations shortly before the U.S.-led aerial assault began. It also said that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sent a message to Syria's top diplomat, using Iraq's foreign minister as an intermediary, to inform Damascus about the plans as well.
There was no immediate word from Washington about Syria's claim. U.S. officials have consistently ruled out direct coordination with Syrian President Bashar Assad's government.
But the Syrian government appeared to be trying to position itself on the side of the international coalition against the Islamic State group. In the statement, the Syrian government vowed to continue fighting the extremist faction across Syria, and said it will not stop coordination "with countries that were harmed by the group, first and foremost Iraq."
"The Syrian Arab Republic says it stands with any international effort to fight terrorism, no matter what a group is called - whether Daesh or (the al-Qaida-linked) Nusra Front or something else," the statement said. Daesh is an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.
In Moscow, Russia's Foreign Ministry warned that "unilateral" U.S. airstrikes on Islamic State militant positions in Syria are destabilizing the region. Russia has been an ally of Syria for decades, and has provided Assad with weapons, money and diplomatic support over the course of the civil war.
The Russian ministry said Tuesday the U.S. should secure either the approval of the Syrian government or the U.N. Security Council before conducting strikes on the insurgent-held territory in Syria.
The U.S. and five Arab countries began their airstrikes on Islamic State group's targets in Syria around 8:30 p.m. EDT Monday (0030 GMT Tuesday), U.S. officials said, expanding a military campaign into a country whose three-year civil war has given the brutal militant group a safe haven.
Syrian activists said more than 50 air and missile strikes hit militant stronghold across northern and eastern Syria, some of which caused massive explosions that lit up the night sky.
The U.S. officials said the strikes were conducted by the U.S., Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.
In Jordan, a government spokesman confirmed the Jordanian air force took part in the airstrikes, saying they were necessary to secure the stability and security of Jordan.
"We think it's necessary for us to target the positions of the Islamic State group in light of the continuous attempts to infiltrate our borders," said Mohammad al-Momani. "We will not hesitate to take further actions to target and kill terrorists who are trying to attack our country."
Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the airstrikes targeted the northern province of Raqqa, its provincial capital, as well as the eastern province of Deir el-Zour, which border's Iraq, and the northern village of Kfar Derian between the northern province of Aleppo and Idlib.
"Tens of Islamic State group members were killed in the attacks," Abdurrahman told The Associated Press, saying they were mostly killed on checkpoints manned by the Islamic State fighters.
The Observatory, which has a network of activists around the country, said the attacks came after drones flew over areas under control of the Islamic State group. Abdurrahman said about 22 airstrikes in all hit Raqqa province in addition to 30 in the nearby Deir el-Zour province that borders Iraq.
He said that other strikes in Raqqa province included locations in the towns of Tabqa and Ein Issa as well as the border town of Tel Abyad on the border with Turkey.
Missiles also targeted the village of Kfar Derian, a base for the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, a rival of the Islamic State group, he said. The U.S. strikes targeted three compounds belonging to the Nusra Front there, killing seven fighters and eight civilians, he added.
Another activist, Mohammed al-Dughaim, based in the northern Syrian province of Idlib, confirmed the Kfar Derian strikes. He said there were civilians among the casualties.
An amateur video posted online Tuesday shows explosions going off at night in an open area, blasts that are said to be from coalition airstrikes. The narrator in the video is heard saying that the footage shows the "bombardment of the Kfar Derian village." The narrator then adds "Allahu Akbar" or "God is great" in Arabic. The video appeared genuine and corresponded to other AP reporting of the events.
An anti-militant media collective entitled "Raqqa is being silently slaughtered" said that the targets included the governorate building or municipality used by Islamic State militants as their headquarters, and the Brigade 93, a Syrian army base that the militants recently seized.
Other airstrikes targeted a military air base recently captured by jihadi fighters in the town of Tabqa, as well as the town of Tel Abyad on the border with Turkey.
On Syria's southern border with Israel, the Israeli military said it shot down a Syrian fighter jet that infiltrated its airspace over the Golan Heights early Tuesday - the first such downing in decades, heightening tensions in the volatile plateau.
The military said a "Syrian aircraft infiltrated into Israeli air space" in the morning hours and that the military "intercepted the aircraft in mid-flight, using the Patriot air defense system."
A defense official identified the downed aircraft as a Sukhoi Su-24 Russian fighter plane. He said the Syrian jet penetrated 800 meters (2,600 feet) into Israeli air space and tried to return to Syria after the Patriot missile was fired.
The crew managed to abandon the plane in time and landed in Syrian territory, the Israeli official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media.
Mroue reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Diaa Hadid in Beirut, Zeina Karam in New York, Omar Akour in Amman, Jordan, and Ian Deitch in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
Reach Bassem Mroue at https://twitter.com/bmroue