BEIRUT – Syria said Monday it was ready to help confront the rising threat from the Islamic State group, but warned the United States against carrying out airstrikes without Damascus’ consent, saying any such attack would be considered an aggression.
In seeking to portray itself as a partner for the international community, Syria seemed intent on capitalizing on the growing clamor among some U.S. officials, including military leaders, to expand the current American air campaign against the Islamic extremists in Iraq and to hit them in Syria as well.
U.S. President Barack Obama has long been wary of getting dragged into the bloody and complex Syrian civil war that the United Nations says has killed more than 190,000 people. He has resisted intervening militarily in the conflict, even after a deadly chemical weapons attack a year ago that Washington blamed on President Bashar Assad’s government.
But the extremist group’s rampage across wide swaths of Iraq, declaration of a state governed by their harsh interpretation of Islamic law in territory spanning the Iraq-Syria border, and grisly beheading of an American journalist, have injected a new dynamic into those calculations. Now, Obama faces pressure from his own military leaders to go after the extremists inside Syria.
On Monday, a senior administration official said Obama authorized surveillance flights over Syria, a move that could pave the way for U.S. airstrikes. The official who confirmed the decision was not authorized to discuss Obama’s decision publicly by name, and insisted on anonymity.
Speaking in Damascus, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem appeared acutely aware of how much has changed since last August, when the U.S. was threatening to carry out punitive airstrikes against Assad’s government in the wake of the chemical attack. Since then, global disapproval has shifted away from Assad and toward the Islamic extremists who are fighting him and spreading destruction across Syria and Iraq.
Al-Moallem told reporters his government is ready “to cooperate and coordinate” with any side, including the U.S., or join any regional or international alliance against the Islamic State group. But he said any military action inside Syria should be coordinated with the Syrian government.
“Any strike which is not coordinated with the government will be considered as aggression,” he said.
He said Damascus has warned repeatedly of the threat of terrorism and the need to cut off resources and funding, but “no one listened to us.” Syria’s government has long described the rebels fighting to topple Assad as “terrorists” in a foreign conspiracy.
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also said Western nations that long refused to condemn Assad’s enemies were now coming to realize the threat posed by the Islamic State group.
The West, he said, will “have to choose what is more important: to change the regime and satisfy personal antipathies with the risk that the situation will crumble, or find pragmatic ways to join efforts against the common threat, which is the same for all of us — terrorism.”
Moscow has been a close ally of Damascus for decades, and has provided it with weapons and funding to help support Assad throughout the current conflict.
Mustafa Alani, the director of the security and defense department at the Gulf Research Center in Geneva, said Syria’s offer aims to take advantage of current events in Iraq, and the corresponding shift in American and European attitudes about Assad and the Islamic State extremists.
“The Syrian government is trying to say they are on the same side as the international community. The old claim from Day 1 that the Syrians have tried to make is that they are fighting pure terrorism. There’s no revolution, no rebels, no opposition,” Alani said.
“I don’t see this sort of call being acceptable, especially on the regional level,” he added. “The Americans might find themselves forced to cooperate under the table with the Syrians. But I don’t think Arab countries will accept Syria as a member of the club fighting the Islamic State.”
The Abbas regime’s warnings about the Islamic State group ring hollow to many in the opposition, who have watched Damascus turn a blind eye to the militants’ expansion in Syria for more than a year. Many even accuse the government of facilitating the group’s rise at the expense of more mainstream rebel factions.
The breakaway al-Qaida group is the most powerful faction fighting Assad’s forces, which means a U.S. campaign to weaken the Islamic State extremists could actually strengthen a leader the White House has sought to push from office. Obama could try to counteract that awkward dynamic by also targeting Assad’s forces, though that could drag the U.S. into the bloody, complex conflict — something he has studiously tried to avoid.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday that Obama has not made a decision on whether to take military action inside Syria, but noted that the president has demonstrated his willingness to take military action to protect American citizens.
“That is true without regard to international borders,” he said.
Earnest tried to tamp down the notion that strikes against the Islamic State could have the unintended consequence of bolstering the Syrian government, saying: “We’re not interested in trying to help the Assad regime.” However, he noted that there are “a lot of cross-pressures here in this situation.”
Despite al-Moallem’s warning against unilateral U.S. airstrikes, there is little the Assad government could do should the U.S. decide to target the Muslim extremists inside Syria.
U.S. officials revealed last week that American special forces had tried to rescue American journalist James Foley in a failed operation in Raqqa in July. Islamic State militants beheaded Foley last week.
Referring to that failed mission, al-Moallem said: “Had there been prior coordination that operation would not have failed.”
Still, the minister denounced “in the strongest terms possible” Foley’s killing, while also asking: “Has the West ever condemned the massacres by the Islamic State . . . against our armed forces or citizens?”
Al-Moallem’s news conference came a day after jihadis captured a major military air base in northeastern Syria, eliminating the last government-held outpost in a province otherwise dominated by the Islamic State group. After several failed attempts, Islamic State fighters stormed the Tabqa air base Sunday, killing dozens of troops inside.
Al-Moallem conceded defeat in Tabqa, saying that soldiers were withdrawn to nearby areas, along with their weaponry and warplanes. Videos posted on militant websites Monday showed celebrations in the nearby town of Tabqa, controlled by the Islamic State group, including fighters honking noisily as they drove in cars carrying the group’s black-and-white flags.