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Second round of U.S.-led airstrikes launched in Syria

Residents inspect damaged buildings in what activists say was a U.S. airstrike, in Kfredrian, Idlib province, in Syria on September 23, 2014.

REUTERS/Abdalghne Karoof

The Pentagon continues to fly reconnaissance missions over Syria, a day after it launched the first of what officials say will be many airstrikes against Islamic extremists there.

On Tuesday, they spotted two Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, also known as ISIL) trucks in eastern Syria and attacked them, destroying one and damaging the other, reports CBS News correspondent David Martin.

The first round of airstrikes inside Syria by an American-led coalition targeted not just ISIS, but a fledgling al Qaeda group.

The one-two-three punch of American and Arab airstrikes against ISIS militants in Syria and Iraq was just the beginning, President Barack Obama and other leaders declared Tuesday. They promised a sustained campaign showcasing a rare U.S.-Arab partnership aimed at Muslim extremists.

At the same time, in fresh evidence of how the terrorist threat continues to expand and mutate, the U.S. on its own struck a new al Qaeda cell that the Pentagon said was "nearing the execution phase" of a direct attack on the U.S. or Europe.

"This is not America's fight alone," Obama said of the military campaign against the Islamic State group. "We're going to do what's necessary to take the fight to this terrorist group, for the security of the country and the region and for the entire world."

Obama said the U.S. was "proud to stand shoulder-to-shoulder" with Arab partners, and he called the roll: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Bahrain and Qatar. Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon's press secretary, said four of the five had participated in the strikes, with Qatar playing a supporting role.

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Arab nations participating in U.S.-led airstrikes inside Syria
CBS News

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Turkey, too, is joining the coalition against ISIS and "will be very engaged on the front lines of this effort." Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in New York for U.N. meetings, said he was considering expanding support of NATO operations against the Islamic State to include military involvement.

In all, Kerry said, more than 50 nations are allied in the fight.

It was a measure of the gravity of the threat and the complex politics of the problem that Syrian President Bashar Assad gave an indirect nod of approval to the airstrikes in his own country, saying he supported "any international anti-terrorism effort." There has been concern among U.S. officials that any strikes against militants fighting Assad could be seen as inadvertently helping the leader whom Obama wants to see ousted from power.

Monday night, in three waves of attacks launched over four hours, the U.S. and its Arab partners made more than 200 airstrikes against roughly a dozen militant targets in Syria, including ISIS headquarters, training camps and barracks as well as targets of the rival Nusra Front, al Qaeda's branch within Syria. The first wave, conducted by the U.S. alone, focused mostly on a shadowy network of al Qaeda veterans known as the Khorasan Group, based in northwestern Syria.

"We've been watching this group closely for some time, and we believe the Khorasan group was nearing the execution phase of an attack either in Europe or the homeland," said Lt. Gen. William Mayville, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The group is known to be working with the Yemeni branch of al-Qaida to recruit foreign fighters with Western passports and explosives to target U.S. aviation.

Pentagon officials released photos and video showing strikes on rooftop communications equipment at an ISIS finance center in Raqqa, the group's self-declared capital in Syria. Another showed damage to a command-and-control building in the same city. A third showed damage in a residential area along the Syrian-Iraqi border that had been used as a training site for fighters.

A Syrian activist group reported that dozens of ISIS fighters were killed in the strikes, but the numbers could not be independently confirmed. Several activists also reported at least 10 civilians killed.

Obama met at the United Nations on Tuesday with representatives of the five Arab nations and told them Monday night's airstrikes were "obviously not the end of the effort, but this is the beginning." Mayville promised "a credible and sustainable persistent campaign to degrade and ultimately destroy" ISIS.

The participation of the Arab nations marked an unusual public convergence of interests between the United States and its Sunni Arab partners against the Sunni ISIS group. Each of the five had privately supported U.S. action, but until now had shied away from overt military cooperation against the militants, fearing reprisals. Each of the nations faces threats from militant Sunnis, but they all also harbor fears of growing assertiveness in the region by Iran, which is largely a Shiite country.

Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the top American military leader, called the coalition unprecedented and said the partnering had set the stage for a broader international campaign against the extremists.

"We wanted to make sure that ISIL knew they have no safe haven, and we certainly achieved that," Dempsey told reporters as he flew to Washington after a weeklong trip to Europe.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power had informed Syria of its intent to take action but did not request the Assad government's permission.

Syria's two key allies, Iran and Russia, condemned the strikes. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called them illegal. Russia said "unilateral" U.S. airstrikes were destabilizing the region and urged Washington to secure either Damascus' consent or U.N. Security Council support.

U.S. Central Command said the bombing mission against the Khorasan group took place west of the Syrian city of Aleppo, with targets including training camps, an explosives and munitions production facility, a communication building and command and control facilities.

The U.S. military has been launching targeted airstrikes in Iraq since August, focusing specifically on attacks to protect American interests and personnel, assist Iraqi refugees and secure critical infrastructure. Last week, as part of the newly expanded campaign, the U.S. began going after militant targets across Iraq, including enemy fighters, outposts, equipment and weapons.

Urged on by the White House and U.S. defense and military officials, Congress passed legislation late last week authorizing the military to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels. Obama signed the bill into law Friday, providing $500 million for the U.S. to train about 5,000 rebels over the next year.