Wed, Aug 27, 2014 - Page 7 News List

US begins Syria missions


The US has begun surveillance flights over Syria after US President Barack Obama approved the move, which could pave the way for airstrikes against Islamic State militant targets there, US officials said.

While the White House says Obama has not approved military action inside Syria, additional intelligence on the militants would likely be necessary before he could take that step. Pentagon officials have been drafting potential options for the president, including airstrikes.

One official said the administration has a need for reliable intelligence from Syria and called the surveillance flights an important avenue for obtaining data.

Two US officials said on Monday that Obama had approved the flights, while another US official said early yesterday that they had begun. The officials spoke only on condition of anonymity.

The US began launching strikes against Islamic State — previously known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — inside Iraq earlier this month, with Obama citing the threat to US personnel in the country and a humanitarian crisis in the north as his rationale. Top Pentagon officials have said the only way the threat from the militants can be fully eliminated is to go after the group inside neighboring Syria as well.

Obama has long resisted taking military action in Syria, a step that would plunge the US into a country ravaged by an intractable civil war. However, the president’s calculus appears to have shifted since Islamic State announced last week that it had murdered US journalist James Foley, who was held hostage in Syria. The group is also threatening to kill other US citizens being held by the extremists in Syria.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said on Monday that Obama has demonstrated his willingness to order military action when necessary to protect US citizens.

The White House did not comment on Obama’s decision to authorize surveillance flights over Syria.

“We’re not going to comment on intelligence or operational issues, but as we’ve been saying, we’ll use all the tools at our disposal,” White House National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said.

The US had already stepped up its air surveillance of Islamic State inside Iraq earlier this year as Obama began considering the prospect of airstrikes there. And the administration has run some surveillance missions over Syria, including ahead of an attempted mission to rescue Foley and other US hostages earlier this summer.

The US special forces who were sent into Syria to carry out the rescue mission did not find the hostages where the military thought they were being held. Officials who confirmed the failed rescue last week said the US was continuing to seek out intelligence on the other hostages’ whereabouts.

Administration officials have said a concern for Obama in seeking to take out Islamic State inside Syria is the prospect that such a move could unintentionally help embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. A top Syrian official said on Monday that any US airstrikes without consent from Syria would be considered an aggression.

Islamic State is among the groups seeking al-Assad’s ouster, along with rebel forces aided by the US.

The White House tried to downplay the notion that action against Islamic State could bolster al-Assad, with Earnest saying: “We’re not interested in trying to help the Assad regime.”

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