KABUL, Afghanistan — U.S. surveillance flights over Syria have started with President Obama's go ahead, a step that will provide potential targets if airstrikes against Islamic State militants are approved.
The Associated Press reported Tuesday that an unnamed U.S. official said the flights had begun. USA TODAY reported Monday that the flights will provide information on potential targets for strikes in Syria if Obama approves.
The White House and Pentagon on Tuesday would not discuss details of intelligence operations in Syria, but made clear the United States is not cooperating with the Assad regime.
"As a matter of U.S. policy, we have not recognized" President Bashar Assad as the leader in Syria, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters aboard Air Force One as the president traveled to Charlotte to give a speech to a veterans group. "There are no plans to change that policy and there are no plans to coordinate with the Assad regime"
Nor would Earnest discuss whether Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel presented military options in Syria when he met with the president at the White House late Monday.
Rear Adm. John Kirby, Hagel's spokesman, would not confirm that any surveillance flights had taken place over Syria. Kirby addressed reporters Tuesday afternoon.
The initiative to plan intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions over Syria was contained in the execution order that allowed for the airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq, according to a Defense Department official speaking on condition of anonymity because the details were not authorized to be released publicly.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, would not confirm or deny the reports but did say the military wants a clearer picture of the jihadist militants who are operating in Syria.
Dempsey said the United States has a better view of the militants in Iraq, where the U.S. military is flying more than 50 surveillance and reconnaissance missions per day in addition to conducting airstrikes.
The militants, who call themselves the Islamic State, are operating in both Iraq and Syria and U.S. officials have said it would be difficult to defeat the threat without addressing the militants on both sides of the porous border between the two countries.
"Clearly the picture we have of ISIS on the Iraqi side is a more refined picture," Dempsey said, referring to the group by one of its acronyms. "The existence and activities of ISIS on the Syrian side — we have some insights into that but we certainly want more insights into that as we craft a way forward."
Dempsey made the remarks to reporters during a short trip to Afghanistan.
Obama has not decided which steps to take in Syria. Col. Ed Thomas, a Dempsey spokesman, said Monday that Dempsey is working with U.S. Central Command, which oversees troops in the region, to select options "both in Iraq and Syria with a variety of military tools, including airstrikes."
Surveillance flights over Syria would allow the military to get a better picture of the viability of the airstrikes, should the White House make such a decision, but officials caution that a decision has not been made.
In Iraq, the U.S. military is coordinating with Iraqi forces in carrying out airstrikes against the militants. The strikes are limited to protecting U.S. personnel and supporting humanitarian efforts.
The United States would have no such partner in Syria, where the militants are fighting the Assad regime.
Dempsey has said that countering the threat in Syria and Iraq will ultimately require a broad coalition aimed at undermining the support the group has among Sunnis in the region.
"ISIS will only truly be defeated when it's rejected by the 20 million disenfranchised Sunni that happen to reside between Damascus and Baghdad," Dempsey told reporters recently at the Pentagon. "It requires the application of all of the tools of national power — diplomatic, economic, information, military."