Syria was warned of coming airstrikes, state media report
U.S. officials informed the Syrian government in advance of Washington’s plans to bomb suspected Islamic State militant sites within its borders, Syrian state media reported Tuesday.
The disclosure was made in a note from U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry that was conveyed to Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem via Iraq’s ambassador to the United Nations, Syria’s official media reported.
In Washington, a State Department spokeswoman acknowledged that warning was given but denied that Kerry sent a letter to the Syrians.
“We warned Syria not to engage U.S. aircraft,” spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. “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 had warned that launching airstrikes on its territory without government authorization would be viewed as an “act of aggression,” but there was no direct condemnation from Damascus of the U.S. bombardment.
The Syrian leadership views U.S. airstrikes extremely warily, even if the extremists targeted are also enemies of President Bashar Assad’s government. Many Assad loyalists fear such attacks could be a prelude to U.S. strikes on Syrian government positions with an eye toward toppling his rule.
The first reports of civilian casualties were emerging following the initial wave of bombardments on early Tuesday Syria time. U.S. airstrikes in a village in Idlib province in northwest Syria killed 11 civilians, including four children, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, a pro-opposition group.
Video purportedly from the site uploaded to the Internet showed a collapsed building as villagers gazed at a pile of collapsed masonry and rebar.
The Pentagon said eight strikes had hit an Al Qaeda-linked group west of Aleppo, where Idlib province is situated. However, there was no independent confirmation that the site where the 11 civilians were reportedly killed had been hit by U.S. bombardment.
The U.S.-led aerial assault targeted militant Islamist positions across a wide swath of northern Syria, from Aleppo in the northwest to the Iraqi border zone in northeastern Syria. The barrage marked the first U.S. airstrikes in Syria after weeks of American attacks on militant formations in neighboring Iraq.
In Iraq, however, the government in Baghdad, an ally of Washington, requested U.S. help. There was no such known request from Damascus.
U.S. officials have said the Syrian government is not an ally and have declared that they will not coordinate military actions with Assad’s administration. President Obama has called on Assad to step down, and Washington has helped train, arm and bankroll insurgents fighting to oust his government.
Nonetheless, Kerry had said that Washington would seek to “de-conflict” any attacks with Syria, suggesting some form of back-channel communication.
The Syrian military possesses an extensive, Soviet-era air defense grid capable of detecting and shooting down unauthorized aircraft. Whether the system detected the U.S.-led airstrikes was not clear.
Syrian government forces have been fighting extremist factions, including the Islamic State and its predecessor organizations, as part of a three-year war against a wide array of rebel forces, some backed by the West.
Damascus said it is prepared to “cooperate” in an international battle against terrorist groups, including the Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. In a statement, Damascus noted that it was working closely with neighboring Iraq to fight the Islamic State
The Syrian government says support for the rebels provided by the United States and its allies -- including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which participated in Tuesday’s airstrikes -- is responsible for the growth of terrorist factions inside Syria. Washington blames the Assad’s government “brutal” repression of protesters for helping to create the militant threat.
In Iran, a close ally of the Assad government and an enemy of the Islamic State group, an official criticized the U.S.-led airstrikes as rash and lacking authorization from Damascus.
“The solution to combating terrorism is not in Hollywood adventures,” Deputy Foreign Minister Hosein Amir Abdollahian told the official Islamic Republic News Agency. “We believe the measure taken by the United States and some other countries violate national sovereignty and international law.”
Special correspondents Nabih Bulos in Beirut and Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran contributed to this report.
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