WASHINGTON / DAMASCUS / MURSITPINAR, Turkey: The United States and its Arab partners began carrying out strikes targeting ISIS’ oil infrastructure inside Syria, two U.S. officials told Reuters Wednesday, in a move that appears aimed at stemming the group’s cash flow.
The Pentagon has confirmed that strikes were underway but declined to provide details.
U.S. planes also pounded ISIS positions in Syria for a second day but the strikes failed to halt the fighters’ advance in a Kurdish area where fleeing refugees told of villages burned and captives beheaded.
A U.S. official said the leader of an Al-Qaeda unit called the Khorasan group was thought to have been killed in the first day of strikes on Syria.
“We believe he is dead,” he said of Khorasan chief Mohsin al-Fadhli, an associate of Al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. The Pentagon said it could not confirm the death.
Washington describes Khorasan as made up of Al-Qaeda veterans planning attacks on the West from a base in Syria, and separate from ISIS.
Syrian Kurds said ISIS had responded to U.S.-led attacks by intensifying its assault near the Turkish border in northern Syria, where 140,000 civilians have fled in recent days in the fastest exodus of the three-year civil war.
Washington and its Arab allies killed scores of fighters from ISIS and the Al-Qaeda affiliate the Nusra Front in the opening 24 hours of airstrikes, the first direct U.S. foray into Syria two weeks after Obama pledged to hit the group on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border.
However, the intensifying advance on the northern town of Kobani, also known as Ain al-Arab, showed the difficulty Washington faces in defeating the fighters in Syria, where it lacks strong military allies on the ground.
“Those airstrikes are not important. We need soldiers on the ground,” said Hamed, a refugee who fled into Turkey.
Mazlum Bergaden, a teacher who crossed the border with his family, said two of his brothers had been taken captive by ISIS fighters.
“The situation is very bad. After they kill people, they are burning the villages ... When they capture any village, they behead one person to make everyone else afraid,” he said. “They are trying to eradicate our culture, purge our nation.”Belgium and the Netherlands both said they were likely to contribute warplanes to the coalition in the coming days, while British Prime Minister David Cameron said Parliament would be recalled Friday from a recess to debate an Iraqi government request for airstrikes against ISIS.
As a response, the Nusra Front has evacuated its bases in populated areas of Idlib province in northwest Syria, its fighters said.
Another Islamist group, Ahrar al-Sham, has also ordered its followers to evacuate bases, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based anti-regime activist group. “Heavy weapons have been moved out of the bases. We do not want civilians to be harmed because of us,” one Nusra fighter said in an online message posted on the Internet.
The Observatory also reported the Nusra withdrawal.
At least 50 fighters from the Nusra Front and eight civilians were killed in strikes by the U.S.-led coalition in Syria Tuesday, the Observatory said.
The initial days of U.S. strikes suggest one aim is to hamper the ability of ISIS to operate across the Iraqi-Syrian frontier. U.S.-led forces Wednesday hit at least 13 targets in and around Al-Bukamal, one of the main border crossings between Iraq and Syria, after striking 22 targets there Tuesday, the Observatory said.
The U.S. military confirmed it had struck inside Syria northwest of Al-Qaim, the Iraqi town at the Al-Bukamal border crossing. It also struck inside Iraq west of Baghdad and near the Iraqi Kurdish capital Irbil.
The U.S.-led attacks have so far encountered no objection, and even signs of approval, from Assad’s government. Syrian state TV led its news broadcast with Wednesday’s airstrikes on the border with Iraq, saying “the USA and its partners” had launched raids against “the terrorist organization” ISIS.
Jordan, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have joined in the strikes.
U.S. officials say they informed both Assad and his main ally Iran in advance of their intention to launch the strikes but did not coordinate with them.
Syria’s minister for national reconciliation, Ali Haidar, said that “what has happened so far is proceeding in the right direction in terms of informing the Syrian government and by not targeting Syrian military installations and not targeting civilians.”
As ISIS outposts elsewhere have been struck, the fighters have accelerated their campaign to capture Kobani, a Kurdish city on the border with Turkey.
An ISIS source, speaking to Reuters via online messaging, said the group had taken several villages to the west of Kobani. Footage posted on YouTube appeared to show ISIS fighters using weapons including artillery as they battled Kurdish forces. The Islamists were shown raising the group’s black flag after tearing down a Kurdish one.
A Turkish official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the advance had been very rapid three days ago but was slowed by the airstrikes.
But Ocalan Iso, deputy leader of Kurdish forces defending Kobani, said more ISIS fighters and tanks had arrived in the area since the airstrikes began. “Kobani is in danger,” he said, repeating calls for the coalition to expand its airstrikes to ISIS positions within 8 kilometers from the town.