US President Barack Obama on Sunday said that the US underestimated the threat posed by Islamic State (IS) fighters in Syria, as US-led coalition warplanes pounded the oil sites that fund the extremist group.
Late on Sunday, coalition planes hit the entrance to the country’s main gas plant, in an apparent warning to militants to abandon the premises under their control, a monitor said.
“The international coalition has for the first time struck the entrance and prayer area of the Coneco gas plant. It is under IS control and is the largest in Syria,” Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel Rahman said.
Up until Sunday, the strikes had targeted mainly extremist bases and makeshift oil refineries used by the militants, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, in a bid to weaken one of their main sources of financing.
Speaking to CBS News, Obama said that former al-Qaeda fighters driven from Iraq by US and local forces had been able to gather in Syria to form the newly dangerous group.
“I think our head of the intelligence community, [US Director of National Intelligence] Jim Clapper, has acknowledged that they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria,” Obama said.
Asked whether Washington had also overestimated the ability or will of Iraq’s US-trained military to fight the militants on its own, Obama said: “That’s true. That’s absolutely true.”
The US, along with coalition partners Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, targeted four modular refineries and an Islamic State command-and-control post, all north of Raqqa in Syria, US Central Command said.
“Initial indications are that [the strikes] were successful,” it said.
In his first speech since air raids were launched on Syria, the head of the al-Qaeda affiliate there, al-Nusra Front, discussed reprisals.
“Your leaders will not pay the price for the war alone; you will pay the higher price,” Abu Mohammad al-Jolani said in an Internet audio message, addressing “people of America and Europe.”
Failure to stop these airstrikes “will transfer the battle to your very homes,” he said.
Washington has said it would press on with “near continuous” strikes, and the latest raids were part of intensifying efforts to disrupt the group’s lucrative oil-pumping and smuggling operations.
The terrorists control territory straddling northwestern Iraq and eastern Syria, home to most of Syria’s primary oilfields, and the oil infrastructure is the main target of the airstrikes.
Sunday’s strikes hit close to the Turkish frontier, near Tal Abyad, said the Syrian rights observatory, destroying “at least three makeshift refineries under IS control.”
Coalition warplanes also hit the extremist heartland province of Raqqa early on Sunday and the raids destroyed a plastics factory outside Raqqa city, killing one civilian, the Britain-based observatory said.
The Pentagon said US-led air strikes in Iraq near insurgent-held Fallujah on Sunday destroyed two terrorist checkpoints.
In western Iraq, pro-government forces backed by warplanes repelled an extremist attack on the strategic town of Amiriyah Fallujah, security sources said.
“Warplanes eventually engaged the insurgents and killed 15 of them,” local police chief Aref al-Janabi said.
The town “has strategic importance. It is a main logistics road for the army and it is the link between Anbar and Karbala,” a Shiite holy city south of Baghdad, Janabi said.
Several European governments have approved plans to join the air campaign in Iraq, including most recently Britain, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Sunday that Ankara “cannot stay” out of the fight.
British warplanes flew their first combat mission over Iraq on Saturday, but returned to base in Cyprus with their bombs after no targets were identified.
European governments have resisted joining the air campaign in Syria for fear of becoming embroiled in that country’s more than three-year-old civil war, forcing Washington to rely on Arab allies.
At least 57 al-Nusra fighters have been killed in the campaign, the observatory said.
The US has made a distinction between the al-Nusra Front and a cell of foreign fighters dubbed the Khorasan Group that it says was plotting attacks against the US.
Muhsin al-Fadhli, a long-standing al-Qaeda operative and alleged Khorasan leader, was reportedly among those killed.
The allies had “committed a horrible act that is going to put them on the list of extremist targets throughout the world,” al-Nusra spokesman Abu Firas al-Suri said in an online video on Saturday.
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