Last night, the US and numerous coalition partners launched airstrikes against ISIS targets within Syria itself for the first time. It marked a major escalation in the crisis not only militarily, but also diplomatically, and now everything's a lot more complicated. Here's what we know.
The Americans Didn't Go It Alone
Like a few of the most recent military interventions in the Middle East, the US didn't just bust into a desert saloon at high noon, guns blazing. Which should be heartening to those of us over the age of, say, 12, who remember the weak coalition that initially invaded Iraq in 2003.
This time, the Obama administration was able to secure the help of not only Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia in Syria, but weirdly enough, even the French gave their tacit support with a series of airstrikes from Rafale fighter jets against ISIS targets in Iraq over the past few days.
The French haven't yet been confirmed to have hit any targets inside Syria itself, but you can't win them all.
Syria was notified that ISIS assets on its territory were going to be attacked before the strikes began, but no details were passed along, according to a statement released by US Department of State:
[W]e informed the Syrian regime directly of our intent to take action through our Ambassador to the United Nations (Ambassador Power) to the Syrian Permanent Representative to the United Nations.
We warned Syria not to engage US aircraft. We did not request the regime's permission. We did not coordinate our actions with the Syrian government. We did not provide advance notification to the Syrians at a military level, or give any indication of our timing on specific targets. Secretary Kerry did not send a letter to the Syrian regime.
Syria, for its part, is now mostly just making weird noises about how yes, it's upset about the violation of its territorial sovereignty, but no, it doesn't really mind because ISIS is a direct and immediate threat to the current Assad family regime that rules the country.
They Brought Out The Big Guns
Well, not guns, exactly, as the coalition didn't use artillery to attack ISIS targets, but they did bring some seriously heavy weaponry to the party. The Saudis flew Tornado attack jets and possibly even their new Eurofighter Typhoons, the UAE contributed their F-16 E/F "Desert Falcon" jets, and Bahrain and Jordan contributed fighter jets as well, according to the BBC.
The Americans brought a serious force to bear, too, as they always do, launching not only F/A-18 fighter jets from both the Navy and the Marines from aircraft carriers stationed in the area, but, intriguingly, the hyper-modern F-22, marking its first-ever known use in combat.
And because it's not a Middle East conflict without gratuitous shots of Tomahawk cruise missiles being fired from deep within American surface warships, we've got plenty of that, too. Here's some Tomahawks being launched from the cruiser USS Philippine Sea:
And here's some being launched from the Vertical Launch System cells in the guided missile destroyer USS Arleigh Burke:
The Tomahawk cruise missile has a range of over 1,000 miles, and can hit targets with extreme precision from those vast distances. 47 Tomahawks were launched from the Philippine Sea and Arleigh Burke, and it's worth noting that Syria didn't shoot down any of them.
And Syria probably could have if it wanted to, considering the advanced Russian-supplied anti-air systems it possesses.
Death toll estimates vary at the moment, but early estimates by a local non-governmental organization, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, have at least 50 ISIS fighters killed, with an untold number of civilians additionally, including children.
Oddly enough, the strikes inside Syria weren't simply limited to ISIS, but they didn't hit Assad regime targets, either. Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told White House reporters that the US military also took the opportunity to hit facilities belonging to an al-Qaeda affiliate, the Khorosan Group, west of the city of Aleppo, according to the Telegraph.
Which is interesting.
This Is Just The Start
But the start of what, we don't exactly know. Will the coalition continue to attack ISIS targets in Syria? Probably. Will there be a full-scale American invasion of Syria, like in Iraq and Afghanistan? Probably not. Will special forces belonging to various nations continue discrete, targeted missions against ISIS and various affiliated targets on the ground for the immediate foreseeable future?
But we do know that large-scale airstrikes like the ones we saw beginning last night often are not the first shot, nor are they the last.
So we'll see how this all turns out over the coming weeks and months. Have something we missed? Got a question about what's happening? Drop it in the comments below, and we'll do our best to respond.
Photos credit: US Navy