President Barack Obama has authorized the U.S. military to conduct surveillance flights over Syria, a possible prelude to attacks on Islamic State targets there, according to a Defense Department official.
Obama hasn’t made any decision whether to expand the U.S. fight against the militant group in Iraq into neighboring Syria, his spokesman, Josh Earnest, said today. He refused to comment on whether the president approved surveillance missions.
The defense official, who wasn’t authorized to discuss the plans, declined to comment on the the timing of surveillance operation. The Associated Press, citing a U.S. official that it didn’t identify, said the fights have begun.
After more than two months of territorial gains in Iraq, Islamic State made its latest breakthrough over the weekend in Syria, seizing an air base and dislodging President Bashar al- Assad’s government forces from their last stronghold in the northeastern Raqqa province. That prompted the Syrian government, which almost became the target of U.S. military action a year ago, to call for a joint effort against the Islamist threat, while warning the U.S. against taking unilateral action.
Earnest told reporters traveling with Obama to a speech in North Carolina that the U.S. doesn’t recognize Assad as Syria’s leader and has no plans to coordinate with the regime.
The Obama administration backs what it calls the moderate Syrian rebels fighting to oust Assad, while opposing Islamic militants such as the Islamic State and the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda offshoot. A decision to hit Islamic State fighters, the most powerful anti-government faction in Syria, could have the effect of helping Assad maintain his power.
Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem said Syria is ready to cooperate with the U.S., the U.K. or other countries in the region against Islamic State, though he said any strike that wasn’t coordinated with his government would be an act of aggression.
Syria’s National Coalition, the main political opposition, called Muallem’s offer of cooperation “an attempt to politically rehabilitate the Assad regime.”
The al-Qaeda breakaway group stormed the Tabaqa air base after battles with the Syrian army that began last week, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors daily developments in the three-year civil war. The government moved its aircraft to other bases, the group said.
Raqqa becomes the first province fully outside Assad’s control, cementing the Islamic State’s hold inside its self- declared state and allowing it to focus on the neighboring Aleppo province, where it has already seized villages and towns previously held by other rebels.
The seizure “means the group can keep moving forward to Aleppo, which is a strategic goal as ISIS drives relentlessly toward the coastline,” Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai, said in a phone interview. Aleppo’s airport is vital to the group’s economic survival as it seeks to import what it needs, he said.