President Obama has authorized military surveillance flights over Syria to gather intelligence about Islamic extremists ahead of possible U.S. airstrikes, senior administration officials said Monday.
"This is about gaining situational awareness with respect to possible airstrikes in Syria," said one official, referring to the surveillance flights.
The Pentagon has conducted surveillance of Syria before, but the latest flights are focused on identifying possible military targets, the official said.
Pentagon officials are worried that aircraft conducting the overflights could be shot down, either by Syrian army air defenses or by the militants, the official added.
But the U.S. can use high-altitude U-2 spy planes and drones to lessen the danger from antiaircraft fire and possibly jet-powered drones with radar-deflecting stealth technology.
Syrian air defenses are not as formidable in remote areas in the country's north and east near Iraq, where Islamic State fighters are concentrated and where the flights are likely to focus, a second official said.
But some Islamic State militants and leaders have also pushed into Syrian cities, where the air defenses are considered formidable, raising the risk that a U.S. plane could be shot down.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the mission.
Obama authorized airstrikes against the group's fighters in Iraq earlier this summer, and the military has carried out about 100 attacks against them. But the president has not decided on extending attacks to the territory the group controls in Syria.
Administration officials are concerned that expanding the U.S. role in Syria would deepen American involvement in that country's civil war and potentially end up helping President
Assad, whose government has also been fighting Islamic State forces, clearly would like to use the U.S. desire to strike the group as leverage to bolster his own position. Syria's foreign minister said Monday that his country "is ready to cooperate and coordinate all the efforts, whether regional or international, to combat terrorism."
"We are ready and open toward this cooperation, including with the United States and Great Britain," Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said.
But he added, "Any military action without coordination with the Syrian government is aggression, and the Syrian government is obliged to take all possible measures to defend its sovereignty."
U.S. officials dismissed any talk of cooperating with Assad's government and said Obama would authorize the military to defend U.S. interests without consulting the Syrians or seeking their permission for possible airstrikes in their territory.
White House officials argue that the killing of an American journalist last week by the militants and their threats to kill additional Americans makes it clear that Islamic State is a growing threat in the region. The administration has authorized airstrikes as a means of protecting against imminent threats to Americans and U.S. interests, officials say. Strikes in Syria could also force the militants to retreat from their push into Iraq.
Senior officials describe the group as a regional threat to Iraq and other countries in the area and one that could eventually threaten the U.S.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Monday that the group did not currently have the capability to stage large-scale attacks against the U.S. but that the administration was concerned that it could develop that ability if left unchecked.
It's unclear whether the objective of airstrikes, if Obama decides to order them, will be to destroy the militants' equipment and training camps or to go after the group's leadership, which could be much harder to target