UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The head of Syria's main Western-backed opposition group on Thursday called for immediate U.S. airstrikes targeting the Islamic State group in Syria, saying urgent action was required "to avert catastrophe."
Hadi Bahra spoke at a press conference at the United Nations as intense fighting continued between the extremist group and Kurdish forces near the Syrian frontier with Turkey, triggering a massive surge of refugees fleeing across the border. The Islamic State group offensive in the area has already sent 130,000 refugees to seek safety in Turkey in the last few days.
"We must begin airstrikes in Syria — immediately as we speak. Time is of essence to avert catastrophe," Bahra said. "Every day that passes without airstrikes in Syria allows ISIS (the Islamic State group) the opportunity for more growth and more terror," he said.
President Barack Obama has said he is prepared to strike the extremist group in Syria, but so far has only ordered attacks on Islamic State targets in Iraq. The group holds roughly one third of each of the neighboring countries. The U.S. Congress has also approved arming and training vetted Syrian opposition units as a ground force to complement U.S. airstrikes.
Bahra, who heads the Syrian National Coalition group, welcomed the train and equip effort which he said will help moderate rebels in Syria fight both the Islamic State extremists and Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces. Bahra said the group was ready to coordinate with the West to maximize the impact of airstrikes against the Islamic State group. He mentioned specifically his group was proposing a unified command and control center, intelligence sharing and assisting the U.S. in the process of vetting the rebels.
"Our forces are the best way to avoid U.S. and any (other) foreign boots on the ground. Nobody wants that," he said.
The Syrian National Coalition holds very little sway on the ground in Syria, where a dizzying array of rebel factions, many of them with extremist ideologies, are fighting to oust Assad but are also engaged in armed rivalry against each other.
The Syrian conflict began in March 2011 with largely peaceful protests against Assad's rule and escalated into a civil war after a brutal military crackdown against protesters. More than 190,000 people have been killed, according to the United Nations.