Under orders from President Barack Obama, according to reports, U.S. drones are now conducting reconnaissance missions over Syria in what many interpret as the preface to airstrikes in the country.
As the Associated Press reports on Tuesday:
The U.S. has begun surveillance flights over Syria after President Barack Obama gave the OK, U.S. officials said, a move that could pave the way for airstrikes against Islamic State militant targets there.
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 U.S. officials said Monday that Obama had approved the flights, while another U.S. official said early Tuesday that they had begun. The officials were not authorized to discuss the matter by name, and spoke only on condition of anonymity.
"There is no decision yet to do strikes," one senior Pentagon officials told the Wall Street Journal on Monday, "but in order to help make that decision, you want to get as much situational awareness as possible."
In a joint news conference last week, both Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Army Gen. Martin Dempsey indicated that striking targets inside Syria is an option now under high-level consideration within the Pentagon and the White House.
Following indications that such missions might be underway on Monday, Syrian officials in Damascus said that though the government of President Bashar al-Assad is committed to continuing and intensifying its fight against ISIS militants, any unilateral strikes by the U.S. military inside its territory would be seen as direct aggression and an attack on its sovereignty.
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Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, speaking to reporters on Monday, pointed out how the U.S. decision to support, fund and arm Islamist militants aligned against the Assad government was at least partly to blame for the rise of ISIS in the region. He indicated that Syria had repeatedly warned of the dangers posed by these factions, but that "no one listened to us."
Al-Moellem went on to say that the Syrian government was willing to "cooperate and coordinate" with forces willing to take on the ISIS threat, but said that unilateral strikes by the U.S. would be intolerable. "Any strike which is not coordinated with the government will be considered as aggression," he said.
The Guardian's Matthew Weaver—who recognized that the Syrian government may now be revelling "in the awkward position the west now finds itself"—reports:
Obama has been reluctant to take military action in Syria, but the flights are being seen as laying the groundwork for extending US air strikes against Islamic State militants (Isis) into the group's stronghold of Raqqa in north-eastern Syria, where it has been leading the fight against the regime of Bashar al-Assad in a civil war that has killed almost 200,000 people.
The irony that the US only a year ago considered – but ultimately rejected – conducting air strikes against Syrian government forces was not lost on the regime.
Benjamin J. Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser, quoted in the New York Times, said: "It is not the case that the enemy of my enemy is my friend," and indicated that working with the Assad regime was not a viable option from the White House's perspective.
According to AP, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday that Obama has not made a decision on whether to take military action inside Syria, but noted that the president has demonstrated his willingness to take military action when he deems it necessary to "save American lives."
It was not made clear how bombing Syria might achieve that end.