The United States is preparing military options, including surveillance flights, to pressure Islamic State in Syria, US officials said last night, but they cautioned no decision had been made to expand US action beyond the limited airstrikes under way in Iraq.
President Barack Obama has so far sought a limited military campaign in Iraq focused on protecting American diplomats and civilians under direct threat. Still, officials have not ruled out escalating military action against the Islamic State militant group, which has increased its overt threats against the United States.
General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week that Islamic State would eventually need to be addressed on “both sides of what is essentially at this point a non-existent border” between Syria and Iraq.
Gen Dempsey’s spokesman confirmed on Monday that options against Islamic State were under review and stressed the need to form “a coalition of capable regional and European partners.”
“With Central Command, (Gen. Dempsey) is preparing options to address ISIS both in Iraq and Syria with a variety of military tools including airstrikes,” Colonel Ed Thomas said, using a different name for the Sunni Muslim group that has seized large areas of Iraq and Syria.
“The bottom line is that our forces are well postured to partner with regional allies against ISIS.”
A US official said Washington was also preparing to launch intelligence and surveillance flights, including drones, over Syria.
Two other US officials also acknowledged the preparation of strike options against Islamic State 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 US defence official, speaking on condition of the anonymity.
Republicans called on Sunday for more aggressive U.S. action to defeat Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq, accusing President Barack Obama of policies that have failed to thwart potential new threats on U.S. soil.
At the White House, spokesman Josh Earnest said Mr Obama would consult Congress on whatever he decided on Syria, but would not necessarily seek congressional approval. He said Mr Obama had not made any decisions on whether to use airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Syria.
Mr Earnest said the Islamic State threat was a different situation from a year ago when Obama said he wanted Congress to approve the use of airstrikes to stop Syrian President Bashir al-Assad from using chemical weapons on his own people.
Mr Obama met on Monday with his defence secretary Chuck Hagel.
Gen Dempsey, Col Thomas added, believed that Islamic State needed to be pressured in Iraq and Syria and that defeating the group would require a sustained effort over an extended period of time “and much more than military action.”
Although the U.S. air campaign launched this month has caused some setbacks for Islamic State, they do not address the deeper problem of sectarian warfare that the group has fuelled with its attacks on Shi’ites.
In retaliation for the airstrikes, Islamic State released a video showing one of its black-clad fighters beheading James Foley, an American journalist.
Syria said Monday it was ready to help confront the rising threat from the Islamic State group, but warned the United States against carrying out airstrikes without Damascus’ consent, saying any such attack would be considered an aggression.
In seeking to portray itself as a partner for the international community, Syria seemed intent on capitalising on the growing clamor among some U.S. officials, including military leaders, to expand the current American air campaign against the Islamic extremists in Iraq and to hit them in Syria as well.
President Barack Obama has long been wary of getting dragged into the bloody and complex Syrian civil war that the United Nations says has killed more than 190,000 people. He has resisted intervening militarily in the conflict, even after a deadly chemical weapons attack a year ago that Washington blamed on President Bashar Assad’s government.
But the extremist group’s rampage across wide swaths of Iraq, declaration of a state governed by their harsh interpretation of Islamic law in territory spanning the Iraq-Syria border, and grisly beheading of Mr Foley, have injected a new dynamic into those calculations.
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