WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama has authorized surveillance flights over Syria, a precursor to potential airstrikes there, but a mounting concern for the White House is how to target the Sunni extremists without helping President Bashar Assad, the New York Times reported Monday, citing unnamed U.S. officials.
Defense officials said Monday evening that the Pentagon is sending in manned and unmanned reconnaissance flights over Syria, using a combination of aircraft, including drones and possibly U-2 spy planes. Obama approved the flights over the weekend, a senior administration official said.
The flights are a significant step toward direct U.S. military action in Syria, an intervention that could alter the battlefield in the nation's three-year civil war.
Administration officials said the United States had no plans to notify the Assad government of the planned flights. Obama, who has repeatedly called for the ouster of Assad, is loath to be seen as aiding the Syrian government, even inadvertently.
As a result the Pentagon is drafting military options that would strike the militant Islamic State in Iraq and Syria near the largely erased border between those two nations, as opposed to more deeply inside Syria. The administration is also moving to bolster U.S. support for the moderate Syrian rebels who view Assad as their main foe.
On Monday, Syria warned the United States that it needed to coordinate airstrikes against ISIS or Syria would view them as a breach of its sovereignty and an "act of aggression." But Syria signaled its readiness to work with the United States in a coordinated campaign against ISIS.
The reconnaissance flights would not be the first time the United States has entered Syrian air space without seeking permission. In July, U.S. special operations forces carried out an unsuccessful rescue attempt for hostages held by ISIS, including journalist James Foley, whose death was revealed last week in a video.
Obama met Monday with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and other advisers to discuss options, but the administration said Obama had not yet decided whether to order military action in Syria. The White House press secretary said that if the president did act, he had no plans to collaborate with Assad or inform him in advance of any operation.