U.S. begins investigative spy plane operations in Syria
Barack Obama has paved the way for airstrikes against ISIS targets in Syria after spy planes started operating in the country on his command, according to U.S officials.
While the White House says military action inside Syria has not yet been approved, additional intelligence on the militants is considered vital before any move can be made - especially in the northern city of Raqqa, which ISIS has named the capital of its self-declared caliphate.
The move comes despite warnings from Syria's embattled president Bashar Assad that any airstrike in the country not given his express permission would be considered an act of aggression.
Obama has so far sought a limited military campaign in neighbouring Iraq focused on protecting American diplomats and Iraqi civilians under direct threat from the brutal Islamist militant group.
But officials have not ruled out escalating military action against ISIS, which has increased its overt threats against the United States in recent weeks.
Pentagon officials have been drafting potential options for the type of action Obama may want to consider to counter ISIS. The plans include airstrikes against strategic targets.
One official said the administration has a need for reliable intelligence from Syria and called the surveillance flights an important avenue for obtaining data on the group's size, firepower and the whereabouts of its leadership.
The U.S. began launching strikes against ISIS inside Iraq earlier this month - with Obama citing the threat to American personnel in the country and a humanitarian crisis in the north as his rationale.
But top Pentagon officials have said the only way to eliminate the militants - who have been branded too extreme even by notorious terrorist group Al Qaeda - is to go after the group inside Syria as well.
Obama has long resisted taking military action in Syria - a step that would plunge the U.S. into a country already ravaged by an intractable civil war.
However, the president's calculus appears to have shifted since ISIS announced last week that it had murdered James Foley - an American photojournalist who had been held hostage in Syria. The extremist group is also threatening to kill other U.S. citizens in its hands.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest yesterday said that Obama has demonstrated his willingness to order military action whenever it is deemed necessary to protect American citizens.
'That is true without regard to international boundaries,' he added.
The White House would not comment on Obama's decision to authorize surveillance flights over Syria yesterday, but a spokesperson speaking on condition of anonymity today said they had begun.
The U.S. stepped up its air surveillance of ISIS inside Iraq earlier this year as Obama began considering the prospect of airstrikes there.
And the administration has already run some surveillance missions over Syria - including ahead of an attempted mission to rescue Foley and other U.S. hostages earlier this summer.
The U.S. special forces who were sent into Syria to carry out the rescue mission did not find the hostages at the location where the military thought they were being held.
Officials who confirmed the failed rescue last week said the U.S. was continuing to seek out intelligence on the other hostages' whereabouts.
Administration officials have said a concern for Obama in seeking to take out ISIS inside Syria is the prospect that such a move could unintentionally help Assad.
Yesterday a top Syrian official said any U.S. airstrike without consent will be considered aggression.
ISIS is among the rebel groups seeking Assad's ouster - along with other forces aided by the U.S.
The White House yesterday tried to tamp down the notion that action against ISIS could bolster Assad, with Earnest saying, 'We're not interested in trying to help the Assad regime.'
However, he acknowledged that 'there are a lot of cross pressures here.'
'With Central Command, [Dempsey] is preparing options to address ISIS both in Iraq and Syria with a variety of military tools including airstrikes,' Colonel Ed Thomas said.
'The bottom line is that our forces are well postured to partner with regional allies against ISIS.'
A U.S. official said Washington was also preparing to launch intelligence and surveillance flights, including drones, over Syria.
Two other U.S. officials also acknowledged the preparation of strike options against ISIS in Syria, with one saying planning had been under way for weeks.
Still, neither official suggested U.S. military action there was imminent.
'We're just not there yet,' said a senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of the anonymity.
On Sunday Republicans called for more aggressive U.S. action to defeat ISIS militants in Syria and Iraq, accusing Barack Obama of policies that have failed to thwart potential new threats on U.S. soil.