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Reports: U.S. Authorizes Surveillance Flights Over Syria

Fighters from the Islamic State during a parade in Raqqa, Syria.
Fighters from the Islamic State during a parade in Raqqa, Syria.

President Obama has authorized surveillance flights over Syria, The Associated Press andThe New York Times are reporting this morning, citing unnamed U.S. officials.

The flights are intended to collect intelligence on Islamic State militants and could be a precursor to military strikes inside of Syria.

The Times adds:

"Defense officials said Monday evening that the Pentagon was sending in manned and unmanned reconnaissance flights over Syria, using a combination of aircraft, including drones and possibly U2 spy planes. Mr. Obama approved the flights over the weekend, a senior administration official said.

"The flights are a significant step toward direct American 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 did not intend to notify the Assad government of the planned flights. Mr. Obama, who has repeatedly called for the ouster of Mr. Assad, is loath to be seen as aiding the Syrian government, even inadvertently."

Obama has over the last three years resisted calls for the United States to wade into the Syrian civil war. But as the Islamic State, which used to be known as the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq or ISIS, started an aggressive march on Iraq, the United States has ordered airstrikes.

Last week, Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser, telegraphed this decision in an interview with NPR.

Rhodes said that U.S. would not rule out military strikes against the Islamic State inside Syria.

NPR's Kelly McEvers asked Rhodes if this means the United States is backing into yet another conflict in the Middle East.

"Well, we're dealing with a very serious and focused challenge from a terrorist organization — [ISIS]," Rhodes said. "And I think what people need to understand in terms of what those concerns may be is that we do place a degree of limits on how we are going to get after that challenge. The president has made clear in Iraq, for instance, that we're not going to reintroduce U.S. forces into combat, which if you compare what we're doing today to when we came into office when we had 140,000-some troops in Iraq, it's a very different type of approach."

During that interview, Rhodes also ruled out working with Syrian President Bashar Assad to oust the militants.

The AP reports that flights over Syria are intended to provide more clarity on the militant group. The news service adds:

"Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Tuesday that the U.S. wants more clarity on the militants in Syria, but declined to comment on the surveillance flights.

" 'Clearly the picture we have of ISIS on the Iraqi side is a more refined picture,' said Dempsey, using one of the acronyms for the Islamic State group. 'The existence and activities of ISIS on the Syrian side, we have ... some insights into that but we certainly want to have more insights into that as we craft a way forward.'

"The U.S. began launching strikes against the Islamic State 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. Top Pentagon officials have said the only way the threat from the militants can be fully eliminated is to go after the group inside neighboring Syria as well."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.