President Barack Obama has authorized the U.S. to conduct surveillance flights over Syria, a necessary preparation for possible air attacks on Islamic State targets there, according to a Defense Department official.
Obama hasn’t decided 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 has approved surveillance missions.
“We have to use our power wisely,” Obama said today in remarks to the American Legion, the nation’s largest veterans service organization, in Charlotte, North Carolina. “History teaches about the dangers of overreaching.”
Without referring to Syria, Obama said that rooting out the “cancer” of the Islamic State “won’t be easy and won’t be quick.”
“Our reach is long” against those who harm Americans, Obama said in his remarks. Islamic State beheaded American journalist James Foley this month and has said it will kill a second journalist, Steven Sotloff, unless Obama stops airstrikes against the group.
The defense official, who wasn’t authorized to discuss the plans, declined to comment on the the timing of surveillance operations. The Associated Press, citing a U.S. official that it didn’t identify, said the flights have begun. Surveillance of Iraqi territory by American aircraft flying along the country’s borders with Iraq and Turkey has been going on for many months, another official said.
One issue for the Obama administration is whether it can conduct airstrikes against the Islamic militants in Syria without bolstering Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom the U.S. also opposes.
The administration backs what it calls moderate Syrian rebels, while opposing Islamic militants such as Islamic State and the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda offshoot that freed one American hostage this week. They are the most powerful anti-government factions in Syria’s civil war.
The intelligence-gathering flights initially will be carried out by drones at lower altitudes and U-2 spy planes flying above the range of Syrian anti-aircraft missiles, according to U.S. defense and intelligence officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss classified operations.
The Lockheed Martin Corp. U-2s will do high-resolution photography, three-dimensional terrain mapping and collect other intelligence on Islamic State locations and movements to supplement electronic and other information already being gathered by U.S. satellites and American and allied intelligence services, they said.
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 Assad’s forces from their last stronghold in the northeastern Raqqa province. That prompted the Syrian government to call for a joint effort against the Islamist threat, while warning the U.S. against taking unilateral action.
The U.S. doesn’t recognize Assad as Syria’s leader and has no plans to coordinate with the regime, Earnest told reporters traveling with Obama to the speech in North Carolina.
A year ago, Obama was threatening airstrikes against Assad’s forces after they used chemical weapons against rebels. Obama backed off in response to opposition in Congress, his own stated wariness of being drawn into the Syrian civil war and a Russian-brokered plan to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile and production facilities.
This time, Obama is likely to order at least limited strikes against Islamic State fighters because of the threat the group may pose to American citizens and interests, as well as to Iraq and other Sunni Arab states such as Jordan, according to one of the officials.
Airstrikes are likely to be of diminishing value, though, because more Islamic State fighters may start shielding themselves in populated areas and forcing civilians to serve as human shields for convoys in open country, the officials said.
Still, attacks -- or the threat of them -- may limit the militants’ movements and force them to think about defending their positions in Syria, stalling their momentum in Iraq and thereby the group’s recruiting appeal, they said.
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, but 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.”
One U.S. official said the Syrian regime may be setting a potential political trap for Obama. If and when U.S. warplanes attack, the official predicted that Syria won’t attempt to shoot them down. Instead, Assad or Muallem will claim falsely that the strikes were done in cooperation with the regime and signal a reversal of U.S. policy that Obama will have to deny. In doing so, the official said, Obama would be admitting a violation of international law and Syrian sovereignty.
Islamic State, an al-Qaeda breakaway group, stormed the Tabaqa air base in Syria 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, where U.S. officials think Foley and other hostages have been held, is now the first province fully outside Assad’s control, cementing Islamic State’s hold over its self-declared caliphate. That allows it to focus on neighboring Aleppo province, home to Syria’s largest city and commercial capital, where it already has seized villages and towns previously held by other rebels.