By Mark Landler and Helene Cooper
New York Times News Service
WASHINGTON — President Barack 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 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 U.S. 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 U.S. support for the moderate Syrian rebels who view Assad as their main foe.
On Monday, Syria warned the U.S. 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.
The reconnaissance flights would not be the first time the United States has entered Syrian airspace without seeking permission. In July, U.S. special operations forces carried out an unsuccessful rescue attempt for hostages held by the Islamic State, including journalist James Foley, whose death was revealed last week in a video.
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.