BEIRUT: Washington Tuesday denied that it was sharing intelligence with Damascus in a bid to confront the Al-Qaeda splinter group ISIS, as U.S. aircraft reportedly began reconnaissance flights over Syria.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said “the claims in that story are false,” referring to an AFP article that said the U.S. was relaying intelligence about the deployments of jihadists to the Syrian regime via Baghdad and Moscow.
In Syria, regime warplanes targeted an ISIS training camp in rural Deir al-Zor province, killing and wounding an unknown number of jihadists, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-regime group based in Britain. The Observatory said another warplane strike, also in Deir al-Zor province and targeting an ISIS headquarters, killed seven civilians.
The Observatory added that the strike against the training camp came two days after an unknown reconnaissance plane was sighted over the area, and as ISIS was making preparations to storm the Deir al-Zor military airport outside the provincial capital, after having seized several regime military outposts in Syria’s eastern regions in recent weeks.
“It’s the first time since ISIS took control of most of Deir al-Zor that warplanes have carried out such intensive and pinpoint raids against ISIS positions in the region,” Observatory director Rami Abdel-Rahman said, noting that a dozen raids targeted locations in Deir al-Zor and next-door Raqqa province, the group’s stronghold.
The U.S. officials said Monday it was ready to send spy planes into Syria to track the group’s fighters but the moves would not be coordinated with the government in Damascus. White House spokesman Josh Earnest Tuesday reiterated that line, saying Washington did not even recognize Assad – whom it blames for igniting a vicious civil war – as the legitimate leader of Syria, and dismissed his government’s offer of a joint effort to combat “terrorism.”
“There are no plans to coordinate with the Assad regime as we consider this terror threat,” Earnest said.
For his part, President Barack Obama vowed to go after the ISIS killers of American journalist James Foley, whose execution was made public last week, and said rooting out the militant group in Iraq and Syria would not be easy.
“America does not forget, our reach is long, we are patient, justice will be done,” Obama told veterans gathered in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Obama, who ordered airstrikes against the militant group in Iraq, said he would do whatever is necessary to go after those who harm Americans. “Rooting out a cancer like [ISIS] won’t be easy and it won’t be quick,” he said.
Washington began surveillance flights over Syria after Obama approved the move, U.S. officials said. While the White House says Obama has not approved military action, additional intelligence on the militants would likely be necessary before he could take such a step.
Two U.S. officials said Monday that Obama had approved the flights, while another U.S. official said early Tuesday that they had begun.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters in Kabul, Afghanistan, that the U.S. wants more clarity on the militants in Syria but declined to comment on the surveillance flights.
“Clearly the picture we have of ISIS on the Iraqi side is a more refined picture,” Dempsey said.
“The existence and activities of ISIS on the Syrian side, we have ... some insights into that but we certainly want to have more insights into that as we craft a way forward.”
Dempsey also said the U.S. has been meeting with allies in the region to help develop a better understanding of the threat posed by ISIS. He said he believes those talks are now beginning to “set the conditions for some kind of coalition to form.”
He said they are “trying to better understand the threat that ISIS poses, not just in Iraq and Syria but regionally.” Dempsey has said he believes key allies in the region – including Jordan, Turkey and Saudi Arabia – will join the U.S. in quashing ISIS.
The U.S. had already stepped up its air surveillance of ISIS 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 U.S. hostages earlier this summer.