Assad backs efforts to fight terrorism
DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) -- Syrian President Bashar Assad said Tuesday he supports any international effort against terrorism, apparently trying to position his government on the side of the U.S.-led coalition conducting airstrikes against the Islamic State group. Damascus said the U.S. informed it beforehand that the strikes were coming.
Assad's remarks came hours after the opening salvo in what the United States has warned will be a lengthy campaign aiming to defeat the extremists who have seized control of a huge swath of territory spanning the Syria-Iraq border.
One Syrian activist group reported that dozens of Islamic State group fighters were killed in the pre-dawn strikes, but the numbers could not be independently confirmed. Several activists also reported at least 10 civilians killed as well.
The air campaign expanded to also hit al-Qaida's branch in Syria, known as the Nusra Front, which has fought against the Islamic State group. Washington considers it a terror group threatening the U.S.
In a meeting Tuesday with an Iraqi envoy, Assad voiced his support for "any international anti-terrorism effort," according to the state news agency SANA. He did not specifically mention the coalition airstrikes. He said Syria is "decisively continuing in the war it has waged for years against extremist terrorism in all its forms."
He said that success won't come through military means alone, and stressed that all nations must commit to stop support for terrorism. He was apparently referring to countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar who are strong backers of Syrian rebels, whom the Syrian government calls terrorists.
In the past weeks, Syrian officials insisted that any international strikes against the extremists on its soil must be coordinated with Damascus or else they would be considered an act of aggression against Syria and a breach of its sovereignty. The United States has ruled out any coordination with Assad's government.
Still, Damascus appeared to want to show it was not being left out. The government vowed in a statement 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 Nusra Front or something else," it said, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.
Syria's Foreign Ministry said Washington told Damascus' envoy to the United Nations of the impending raids shortly before they began. It also said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry passed a message through Iraq's foreign minister to Syria's top diplomat to inform Damascus of the plans.
There was no immediate comment from Washington.
Syria's two key allies, Iran and Russia, condemned the strikes. Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian told state TV that Tehran sees the U.S.-led airstrikes as a "violation" Syria's sovereignty and a "new intervention in the region." He said any military action in Syria without Damascus' approval was unacceptable.
Russia warned that the "unilateral" U.S. airstrikes are destabilizing the region and urged Washington to secure either Damascus' consent or U.N. Security Council support.
The U.S. and five Arab countries began their airstrikes on Islamic State group's targets in Syria around 3 a.m. Tuesday Syrian time (8:30 p.m. EDT Monday). U.S. officials said the strikes were conducted by the U.S., Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.
Bahrain both confirmed the Gulf role, saying in a statement that its and other Gulf nations' air forces struck "terrorist sites and positions." The UAE also said its aircraft took part.
A Jordanian government spokesman also confirmed his country's air forces took part, accusing the Islamic State group of trying to infiltrate its borders.
"We will not hesitate to take further actions to target and kill terrorists who are trying to attack our country," said Mohammad al-Momani, a government spokesman.
The strikes hit the group's training compounds and command centers, storage facilities and vehicles in its de facto capital Raqqa, in northeastern Syria, and the surrounding province as well as the stretch of territory controlled by the group in eastern Syria leading to the Iraqi border, including the areas of Deir el-Zour, Abu Kamal and Hassakeh, according to U.S. officials.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that at least 70 Islamic State group fighters were killed and more than 300 wounded in Raqqa and the east. The Observatory has a network of activists around the country. Rami Abdurrahman, the head of the Observatory, said about 22 airstrikes hit Raqqa province in addition to 30 in Deir el-Zour province.
Among the targets was a military air base captured by the extremists in the town of Tabqa and the town of Tel Abyad on the border with Turkey, the Observatory and an anti-extremist media collective reported.
The collective, entitled "Raqqa is being silently slaughtered," said the strikes also hit the governorate headquarters in Raqqa and the Brigade 93 Syrian army base, both controlled by the Islamic State group.
Further west, the strikes hit the village of Kfar Derian, a stronghold of the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front.
Around a dozen Nusra Front fighters were killed as well as 10 civilians, according to two activists based in nearby Aleppo, Mohammed al-Dughaim and Abu Raed. One of the group's best snipers, known as Abu Youssef al-Turki, was among those killed, al-Dughaim said.
An amateur video posted online Tuesday shows explosions said to be from airstrikes going off at night in an open area near Kfar Derian. Another video taken in daylight shows locals standing on a massive, dusty pile of shattered concrete blocks and twisted rebar. Some villagers can be seen standing on a rooftop next door gazing at the wreckage.
The videos appeared genuine and corresponded to other AP reporting of the events.
Mroue reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Diaa Hadid in Beirut, Zeina Karam in New York, Omar Akour in Amman, Jordan, Aya Batrawy in Dubai and Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran.
Reach Bassem Mroue at https://twitter.com/bmroue
National & World News