The Pentagon is preparing to send surveillance aircraft, including drones, into Syrian airspace to gather intelligence on Islamist targets, laying the groundwork for a possible expansion of the limited U.S. military air campaign beyond Iraq, senior U.S. officials said.
The decision amounts to an acknowledgment that U.S. intelligence-collection efforts must be expanded to provide a better picture of the threat posed by the group calling itself the Islamic State, which holds large swaths of Syrian and Iraqi territory. It is also one of the first tangible signs that the Obama administration may be preparing for military operations in Syria against the group, which is also known as ISIS.
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The U.S. military’s Central Command, which oversees American operations in the region, requested more surveillance aircraft, including drones, to gather more intelligence on potential Islamic State targets, and officials said they could start flying missions over eastern Syria shortly.
“The Pentagon is preparing to conduct reconnaissance flights over Syria,” a senior U.S. official said. “There is no decision yet to do strikes, but in order to help make that decision, you want to get as much situational awareness as possible.”
The Obama administration’s posture toward the group calling itself the Islamic State has toughened markedly following the grisly video released last week showing the killing of American journalist James Foley. President Barack Obama vowed last week to extract the “cancer” of Islamic extremists from the Middle East.
Mr. Obama authorized the surveillance flights in Syria with drones and manned aircraft over the weekend, a senior administration official said.
The White House on Monday called for more involvement by the government of Iraq, which has lost control of substantial parts of the country to Islamic State extremists, and for a greater involvement by other tribes, groups and governments in the Middle East.
Vice President Joe Biden spoke Monday with Iraq’s new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, to stress the importance of forming a new Iraq government quickly to gain support within the country and the larger region for confronting militants.
But military officials said the work of preparing for possible U.S. strikes was continuing.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem warned against any such strikes without Damascus’s consent. Mr. al-Moallem, speaking at a news conference in Damascus, said Syria is ready to cooperate against extremist forces but any action against militant groups “should be coordinated with the Syrian government.”
The White House declined to comment on any surveillance flights in Syrian airspace.
“We’re not going to comment on intelligence or operational issues,” said White House National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden. “As we’ve been saying, we’ll use all the tools at our disposal when it comes to the protection of our people.”
The drones would enter Syrian airspace without any Syrian regime approval or authorization, said U.S. officials familiar with the matter. The administration often has said that fighting a common enemy doesn’t make the Syrian regime a U.S. ally. U.S. officials said air-defense systems in eastern Syria won’t pose a threat because sensors are either sparsely located or inoperable.
The intelligence from the proposed surveillance flights would supplement information provided by satellites, the officials said.
American officials have conducted at least some secret flights with drones and manned aircraft inside Syrian airspace in the past, including during a July raid to try to rescue a group of Americans held by the Islamic State.
The raid, which was supported by aircraft overhead, failed because the American hostages had already been moved.
The U.S. has been flying drones and other surveillance aircraft along the Iraqi-Syrian border since late last year. Those flights have been expanded dramatically in recent weeks but officials say they still provide limited intelligence about Islamic State facilities and activities deeper into Syrian territory.
Central Command is “doing all of those things you’d expect a combatant command to do,” a senior defense official said of the request for drones to develop targets in Syria for potential strikes.
“Intelligence is always critical to developing target lists,” the official added, playing down prospects for an immediate decision to shift from an intelligence-collection mission in Syria to launching strikes.
In meetings last week with their White House and Pentagon counterparts, Central Command officials made the case for shifting more of the military’s drones into the Middle East from other regions because of heavy demand for real-time images and other surveillance of would-be Islamic State targets.
Officials said Islamic State targets are hard to pinpoint with satellites, which don’t provide 24/7 coverage.
If Mr. Obama authorizes strikes in Syria, the officials said, persistent surveillance from drones will be required to ensure the right targets are hit, reduce the risk of civilian casualties and conduct post-strike damage assessments.
A defense official said the military would need to bring drones to the region from Europe or Africa because the drones already in the Middle East are fully used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, or ISR.
“The assets we have are used heavily. ISR is definitely a zero-sum game,” said the defense official. “If we move collection somewhere else, we are taking it from somewhere it is needed.”
Central Command has been pushing for more reconnaissance flights, arguing that without more drones, officials won’t be able to develop options for Mr. Obama.
“We have to be ready,” said the defense official. “We are always leaning forward…If there is going to be a shift in policy, developing an accurate picture is the first thing we need.”
In Iraq, the U.S. has both drones in the air to collect intelligence, and so-called humint—human intelligence—from networks of sources, as well as from Kurdish and Iraqi forces which are sharing information with the U.S.
The U.S. doesn’t have a similar ground presence in Syria. While the Central Intelligence Agency has been working with moderate rebels, the covert train-and-equip program has been limited in size and scope.
See also: The US Is Reportedly Giving Information About ISIS To Syria’s Assad Regime (h/t Mauser 98)