WASHINGTON: The United States is preparing military options to pressure ISIS in Syria, the U.S. military said Monday, but officials cautioned that no decision had been made to expand U.S. action beyond the limited airstrikes underway in Iraq.
President Barack Obama has so far sought a limited military campaign in Iraq focused on protecting American diplomats and civilians under direct threat. Still, officials have not ruled out escalating military action against ISIS, which has increased its overt threats against the United States.
General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week that ISIS would need to eventually be addressed on “both sides of what is essentially at this point a non-existent border” between Syria and Iraq.
Dempsey’s spokesman confirmed Monday that options against ISIS were under review and stressed the need to form “a coalition of capable regional and European partners.”
“With Central Command, [Dempsey] is preparing options to address ISIS both in Iraq and Syria with a variety of military tools including airstrikes,” Colonel Ed Thomas said. “The bottom line is that our forces are well postured to partner with regional allies against ISIS.”
Two other U.S. officials also acknowledged the preparation of strike options against ISIS in Syria, with one saying planning had been underway for weeks. Still, neither official suggested U.S. military action there was imminent.
“We’re just not there yet,” said a senior U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Earlier Monday, the Syrian foreign minister said the country would cooperate in any international effort to fight ISIS. Walid al-Moallem held open the possibility of working with a range of countries, including the United States, Britain and Saudi Arabia, all of which supported the uprising against Assad.
Moallem presented his country as a vital partner in a war against ISIS, which has seized areas of Syria and Iraq and declared a “caliphate” in the territories it controls.
“Syria, geographically and operationally, is the center of the international coalition to fight Islamic State [ISIS],” Moallem said in a televised news conference. “States must come to it if they are serious in combating terrorism,” he added.
Asked about the prospect of U.S. air raids against ISIS inside Syria, Moallem said any strikes would have to be coordinated with Damascus. “Anything outside this is considered aggression,” he told reporters.
Asked if Syria was ready to work with the U.S. and U.K. in fighting the group, he said: “They are welcome.”
However, U.S. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said that any possible action by the U.S. on Syrian soil “would not mean we are on the same side.”
Washington has supported the insurgency in Syria, which has killed at least 191,000 people, and there has been no sign of any shift in U.S. policy toward Assad. “He’s part of the problem,” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, said.
Britain and Germany have also ruled out negotiating with him.
Speaking Monday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest appeared to hint that if Obama were to decide to launch attacks on Syrian territory, he would not feel the need to inform the Damascus government.“The president has already demonstrated a willingness, where necessary ... to use military force to protect the American people, regardless of borders. This is evident from the president ordering the mission to go and get Osama bin Laden. The United States was not invited in by the Pakistani government. That was a decision that the president made to go and get Osama bin Laden.”
Moallem also called for intelligence sharing with neighboring states and suggested cooperation would be possible with Saudi Arabia, another major backer of the anti-Assad uprising that has shown increasing alarm about ISIS.
The Syrian regime’s warnings about ISIS ring hollow to many in the opposition, who have watched Damascus turn a blind eye to the militant’s 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.
Until recently, direct engagements between the Syrian army and ISIS were rare. The government has mostly focused its military efforts on beating back insurgents in a strategic corridor of territory stretching north from Damascus – areas far from the ISIS’ strongholds where it has less of a presence. The pattern of conflict has changed in recent weeks, with hundreds of government loyalist fighters killed in engagements with the group in the northeast.
Russia, the most prominent foreign backer of Assad, urged Western and Arab nations to overcome their distaste of the government in Damascus and engage with it to fight the hardline insurgents.
The West, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said, “will very soon 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.”