Australia begins air operations in Syria

Australia officially extends Operation OKRA into Syria as first warplanes seek out ISIS positions as part of US-led international coalition

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Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has confirmed the commencement of the country’s combat mission in Syria as part of a US-led international coalition against the ISIS militant group.

Two Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) F/A-18 Hornets, a KC-30A air-to-air refuelling aircraft and an E-7A Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft flew over eastern Syria on Friday, the Australian Defence Department said.

The operation marks the first time Australian military warplanes entered Syrian airspace since it began participating in the international coalition.

According to the RAAF's Air Task Group commander Stu Bellingham, the aircraft scanned the region for enemy positions and reported back to the Combined Air Operations Centre.

F/A-18 Hornets

"The Hornets were also prepared for any short notice high-priority tasking which could include surveillance and weapons release," Bellingham said.

No bombs were dropped during the operation, but the Hornets were “prepared for any short notice high priority tasking which could include surveillance and weapons release," Bellingham added.

Speaking on Wednesday, Prime Minister Abbott said “Destroying this death cult is essential, not just to ending the humanitarian crisis in the Middle East but also to ending the threat to Australia and the wider world.”

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott (C) announces Australia's acceptance of Syrian refugees alongside Defence Minister Kevin Andrews (L) and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop at Parliament House in Canberra

However, Abbott ruled out extending air strike operations to target Bashar al Assad’s regime forces, saying "We are exercising the right to collective self-defence under Article 51 of the UN charter in striking Daesh [ISIS] in Syria."

“We have no legal basis at this point in time for wider strikes in Syria and we don’t intend to make wider strikes in Syria.”

Australia is already participating as a member of the coalition under the name of Operation OKRA, but to date has limited its operations to Iraq, where it has contributed six RAAF/A18 combat jets and two support aircraft.

Abbott said he had decided to extend Australia’s role in the air strike campaign to Syria upon receiving a request from the US, adding that ISIS cannot be defeated in Iraq without defeating it in Syria.

The US-led coalition started air strikes in Syria and Iraq against ISIS targets last September after ISIS militants broke through the Sykes-Picot border dividing the two countries.

Last week, France also announced its plans to join the US-led campaign against ISIS in Syria, which also includes the air force of Bahrain, Canada, Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

For over a year, ISIS militants maintained control of large territories seized in both Iraq and Syria, including Iraq’s second biggest city Mosul and the Syrian city of Raqqa, which they have established as the de facto capital of their self-proclaimed state.

TRTWorld and agencies