White House Signs Off on Surveillance Flights over Syria

U.S. President Barack Obama has authorized aerial surveillance over Syria as he weighs possible airstrikes against Sunni extremists in the embattled country.

The president made the decision to deploy the surveillance flights over the weekend, a senior administration official said. According to defense officials, the aircraft will be both manned and unmanned, including drones and possibly U2 spy planes.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon continues to draft military options to strike Islamic State militants inside Syria. Obama met Monday with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel at the White House, where he was expected to discuss options in Syria and recent military actions in Iraq.

When asked Monday about the potential for military action in Syria, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest replied: “I’m not in a position to do that beyond saying that the President has not made any decision to order military action in Syria.”

Potential military strikes against IS would be in the interest of both Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom the U.S. opposes, and the opposition Syrian National Coalition, which the U.S. supports.

The U.S. is hesitant to do anything that would overtly signal collaboration with the Assad regime. “Joining forces with Assad would essentially permanently alienate the Sunni population in both Syria and Iraq, who are necessary to dislodging ISIL” (another name for IS), observed deputy National Security Adviser Benjamin J. Rhodes. Therefore, any potential airstrikes would be carried out without informing Syria, the White House has said.

Airstrikes would bolster the opposition’s war-weary Free Syrian Army. The U.S. has provided military equipment to the FSA, but the group is not as well equipped or trained as Iraq’s Kurdish Peshmerga, currently battling an IS-offensive against northern Iraq. Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said Monday that Hagel is considering “a train-and-equip program” to strengthen the FSA.

Rebel coalition spokesman Oubai Shahbandar welcomed news of possible military action in Syria. “The Free Syrian Army commanders on the ground fighting ISIS in northern Syria have declared their readiness to coordinate with the U.S. in striking ISIS.”