The United States launched airstrikes against Islamic extremist groups inside Syria late Monday in an effort to destroy the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and prevent another little-known terrorist cell from executing an attack against the West.
The strikes marked the first time the U.S. has militarily intervened in Syria since a civil war began there three years ago. Obama administration officials said the missile strikes were "very effective" in hitting their targets, but the expanded campaign against terrorist groups in Syria has raised questions about the U.S. strategy in the region.
Here is what you need to know about the airstrikes:
Who is the U.S. targeting?
The U.S. used airstrikes and cruise missiles to attack up to 20 ISIS targets in Syria, including command-and-control facilities, financial centers, supply depots and training grounds, according to administration officials. U.S. Central Command posted video of some of the strikes on social media, including this one of an ISIS facility near the city of Raqqa, the group's self-described capital in Syria.
American forces also targeted a terror cell called the Khorasan Group, which officials said “posed an imminent threat" to launch attacks in the U.S. and Europe.
The Khorasan Group is reportedly made up of "seasoned al-Qaeda veterans" from Afghanistan and Pakistan who moved to Syria to take advantage of the chaos there to establish a base of operations, administration officials told reporters. Officials said intelligence agencies have been monitoring the group for "many months."
The group was constructing improvised explosive devices and working to recruit Western fighters. Intelligence reports showed that Khorasan operatives were "nearing the execution phase" of a strike on Western nations, a top Obama adviser told reporters on condition of anonymity.
The Associated Press reported that missiles struck the village of Kfar Derian, a base of operations for the al-Qaeda affiliated Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra. Both Khorasan and al-Nusra are considered rivals to ISIS.
The strikes against other extremist groups suggests the campaign in Syria has expanded beyond the scope of the mission President Obama laid out on Sept. 10, which was to degrade and destroy ISIS.
Did the attacks succeed?
Administration officials told reporters the strikes were “very effective" and more bombings will follow. A senior military official told The New York Times the United States and its allies dropped more bombs in one night than in all previous campaigns against ISIS.
Officials declined to provide specific results of the strikes, including the number of ISIS fighters killed or buildings destroyed, saying damage assessments are ongoing.
The series of bombing attacks is only the opening salvo, according to Richard J. Stoll, a political science professor at Rice University who specializes in international conflict. "If you really want to degrade ISIS, you're going to need a lot more strikes," he said.
Ground forces will also be necessary to hold abandoned territory, according to Stoll. He doesn't expect the U.S. will supply ground combat units, but could arm Syrian forces to fight against the terrorist organization or reach out to Arab allies for support.
"Without some reasonable forces on the ground, we can't really stop ISIS," he said.
Is Obama authorized to expand military action in the Middle East?
The president approved the airstrikes in Syria last Thursday after visiting Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla. The administration maintains it has the legal authority to strike ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and the Khorosan Group under the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force against groups responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Officials cite the two groups’ links to al-Qaeda.
Congress voted last week to support Obama's plan to arm Syrian rebels to fight ISIS, but the White House has maintained it does not need separate authorization to carry out strikes against extremist groups.
No clear consensus has emerged as to whether the airstrikes overstep the president's authority, according to Rice University's Stoll.
"I think if you called four different constitutional scholars, you'd get four different opinions on that," he said. "I think it's better if the president gets authorization from Congress…the question of whether he truly needs authorization, I'm not sure there's a clear-cut answer."
Did coalition forces join the fighting?
President Obama said Tuesday that Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates cooperated with the U.S. on the operation.
The New York Times reported U.S. forces conducted the first stage of the operation, but fighters and bombers from Arab allied nations participated in the second and third stage of the strike in northern and eastern Syria.
NATO allies have played a more limited role in the campaign, though there are signs they could become more involved. France carried out its first airstrikes in Iraq last Friday and The Guardian reported U.K. aircraft are preparing to hit targets in Iraq. U.S. forces have conducted almost 200 strikes against ISIS in Iraq, according to ABC News.
What is the U.S. trying to accomplish with these strikes?
The president's stated goal is to dismantle ISIS, which has beheaded two American journalists and a British aid worker. U.S. officials say the group threatens American interests in the region, but there is debate over how much of a threat the group poses to the U.S. homeland.
Officials claimed operatives from the Khorasan Group were close to carrying out an attack in the U.S. or Europe, and the strike "removed their capability to act." Security sources told ABC News, however, it's unclear how much damage the attacks inflicted on the group.
While the strikes in Syria are intended to protect American interests, they could have the unintended effect of bolstering Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In 2011, Obama declared Assad must go after his government's violent crackdowns on protesters; he even considered an attack on Syria last year after the Assad government used chemical weapons.
Now, the United States and Assad face a common enemy in ISIS. If the U.S. can deal a serious blow to the military capability of the Islamic State, Assad could benefit in the short-term by taking control of territories formerly held by the group.
"Unfortunately, doing this does supply some help to President Assad," Rice University's Stoll said. "On the other hand, we wouldn't want to see ISIS running Syria."
What do the strikes mean for civilians in Syria?
Syria is already a country in shambles. A devastating civil war has claimed the lives of more than 191,000 people since 2011, according to a report by the United Nations. An estimated 9 million people have been forced from their homes.
"You have whole cities and neighborhoods that have been razed to the ground," said Daniel Rothenberg, a political science professor and a fellow with the New America Foundation. "You have a massive impact on the ordinary social life of citizens that is just difficult for people out of war zones to grasp."
Obama administration officials said on Tuesday that no civilians have been killed in recent strikes, but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights—a leading group monitoring violence in the country—told Reuters that “eight civilians including children" had been killed.
The airstrikes likely won't improve conditions for civilians in the near future. The long-term outlook—with Assad's forces possibly wielding more power—is also worrisome.
Jordan Fabian is Fusion's politics editor, writing about campaigns, Congress, immigration, and more. When he's not working, you can find him at the ice rink or at home with his wife, Melissa.
Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.