WASHINGTON – The Obama administration has ruled out the possibility of coordinating any U.S. airstrikes in Syria with President Bashar Assad’s government, forcing U.S. officials to either design a campaign that would evade Syrian air defenses or coordinate it with Assad through a third party.
Despite the shared U.S. and Syrian interest in defeating Islamist militants in the region, there will be no cooperation with Assad, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Tuesday.
We’re not going to ask for permission from the Syrian regime, she said.
With top U.S. officials describing the Islamic State militant group as a growing threat to international security, some form of stepped-up U.S. action appears increasingly likely and could include an expansion of the American air war from Iraq into Syria.
Whether done in concert with Assad or not, airstrikes would be a strategic benefit to Assad more than three years after the start of the uprising against his rule.
Airstrikes, even if officially opposed by Assad as a violation of Syrian sovereignty, would also put Obama and Assad on the same side of a war Obama has been loath to join.
The White House stressed Tuesday that Obama has made no decision on whether to conduct airstrikes in Syria, even amid signs of stepped-up U.S. activity in the region, including his authorization of surveillance flights there.
Syria’s foreign minister warned Monday against unilateral U.S. strikes but welcomed a broader regional approach to fighting the militants, opening the possibility that the administration could rely on partners to coordinate attacks. U.S. officials said there has been no such coordination to date.
Any unilateral action by the United States would mean testing Syria’s air defenses or the response of Assad’s forces.
While the U.S. military has penetrated Syrian airspace on at least one occasion since the start of the civil war – a failed bid this year to rescue journalist James Foley and other Americans being held by the Islamic State – that raid used modified Black Hawk helicopters.
The helicopters are designed to fly into hostile air space and could have been flown at low altitudes to avoid radar detection.
Surveillance aircraft operate high and slow, and they could be shot down by both the Syrian air force and the country’s air defense grid.
The Pentagon has begun identifying potential targets, but it is not clear how soon any U.S. strikes might come.
This is a serious threat from a serious group of terrorists, and we need to stay mindful of doing what we need to do to protect American citizens at home and abroad, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said Tuesday.
We’re not going to hold ourselves to geographic boundaries in order to accomplish that job.