August 26, 2014 in Nation/World

U.S. spy planes flying over Syria

Surveillance sorties could be precursor to military action
Julie Pace Associated Press
 

WASHINGTON – The U.S. has begun surveillance flights over Syria after President Barack Obama gave the OK, a move that could pave the way for airstrikes against Islamic State militant targets there, U.S. officials said.

While the White House says Obama has not approved military action inside Syria, additional intelligence on the militants would likely be necessary before he could take that step. Pentagon officials have been drafting potential options for the president.

One official said the administration has a need for reliable intelligence from Syria and called the surveillance flights an important avenue for obtaining data.

Two U.S. officials said Monday that Obama had approved the flights, while another U.S. official said early today that they had begun.

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.

Obama has long resisted taking military action in Syria, a step that would plunge the U.S. into a country ravaged by an intractable civil war. However, the president’s calculus appears to have shifted since the Islamic State announced last week that it had murdered American journalist James Foley, who was held hostage in Syria. The group is also threatening to kill other U.S. citizens being held by the extremists in Syria.

The White House would not comment on Obama’s decision to authorize surveillance flights over Syria.

“We’re not going to comment on intelligence or operational issues, but as we’ve been saying, we’ll use all the tools at our disposal,” said Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council.

The U.S. had already stepped up its air surveillance of the Islamic State inside Iraq earlier this year as Obama began considering the prospect of airstrikes there. And the administration has run some surveillance missions over Syria, including ahead of an attempted mission to rescue Foley and other hostages earlier this summer.

The U.S. special forces who were sent into Syria to carry out the rescue mission did not find the hostages at the location where the military thought they were being held. Officials who confirmed the failed rescue last week said the U.S. was continuing to seek intelligence on the other hostages’ whereabouts.

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