WASHINGTON — President 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.
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 US military action in Syria, an intervention that could alter the battlefield in the nation’s three-year civil war.
Administration officials said that 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 near the largely erased border between those two nations, as opposed to more deeply inside Syria. The administration is also moving to bolster US support for the moderate Syrian rebels who view Assad as their main foe.
On Monday, Syria warned the US that it needed to coordinate airstrikes against the Islamic State or it would view them as a breach of its sovereignty and an “act of aggression.” But it signaled its readiness to work with the United States in a coordinated campaign against the militants.
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 made it clear that if the president did act, he had no plans to collaborate with Assad or even inform him in advance.
“It is not the case that the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser. “Joining forces with Assad would essentially permanently alienate the Sunni population in both Syria and Iraq, who are necessary to dislodging” the Islamic State, he said.
Still, administration officials acknowledge that the sudden threat from the Islamic State to Americans — several of whom are still held by the militants — had complicated the calculus for the United States in a conflict Obama has largely avoided.
“There are a lot of cross pressures here in this situation,” the press secretary, Josh Earnest, told reporters. “There’s no doubt about that. But our policy as it relates to pursuing American interests in this region of the world are actually really clear, that we want to make sure that we are safeguarding American personnel.”
Under plans being developed by the administration, a senior official said, the United States could target leaders of the militant group in and around their stronghold, the northern city of Raqqa, as well as in isolated outposts to the east, near Iraq.
On Monday, even as he warned the Obama administration against unilateral strikes in Syria, Walid Muallem, the Syrian foreign minister, said, “Syria is ready for cooperation and coordination at the regional and international level to fight terrorism.”
Assad has long tried to rally support by portraying the insurgency against his government as a terrorist threat. He has made little headway with the West or his Arab neighbors.