The U.S. hasn't decided whether to attack Islamic State targets inside Syria and won't ask President Bashar al-Assad for permission if it does, a White House spokesman said.
President Barack Obama, who this month ordered airstrikes against the Islamist militants in Iraq, hasn't reached a conclusion about similar actions in Syria, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said yesterday. Earnest declined to say whether U.S. military leaders have given Obama specific options for such attacks.
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After more than two months of territorial gains in Iraq, Islamic State made its latest breakthrough in Syria over the weekend, seizing an air base and dislodging Assad's forces from their last stronghold in the northeastern Raqqa province. That prompted the Syrian government, which almost became the target of U.S. military action a year ago, to call for a joint effort against the Islamist threat.
Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem said Syria is ready to cooperate with the U.S., the U.K. or other countries in the region against Islamic State, though he said any strike that wasn't coordinated with his government would be an act of aggression.
Earnest dismissed Muallem's suggestion. "We are not interested in helping the Assad regime," he said. "We have been calling for quite some time for the Assad team to step down."
Syria's National Coalition, the main political opposition, rejected Muallem's offer as "an attempt to politically rehabilitate the Assad regime."
"The Assad regime is undoubtedly the root problem of terrorism and cannot be part of the solution," the group said in a statement that cited its secretary-general, Nasr al-Hariri.
The al-Qaeda breakaway group stormed the Tabaqa air base after battles with the Syrian army that began last week, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors daily developments in the three-year civil war. The government moved its aircraft to other bases, the group said.
Raqqa becomes the first province fully outside Assad's control, cementing the Islamic State's hold inside its self- declared state and allowing it to focus on the neighboring Aleppo province, where it has already seized villages and towns previously held by other rebels.
The seizure "means the group can keep moving forward to Aleppo, which is a strategic goal as ISIS drives relentlessly toward the coastline," Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai, said in a phone interview. Aleppo's airport is vital to the group's economic survival as it seeks to import what it needs, he said.
At least 170 Syrian soldiers were killed yesterday and 150 may have been captured, the SOHR said. More than 346 Islamic State fighters have died in the fighting since the militants began their assault on the base on Aug. 19, it said. The state- run SANA news agency said Syrian forces regrouped after the airport was evacuated, and are "carrying out precision strikes against the terrorist groups in the area."
The militants were seen walking in Tabaqa city carrying the severed heads of Syrian soldiers, the Observatory said. The group beheaded American journalist James Foley earlier this month, calling it retaliation for the U.S. strikes in Iraq that helped Kurdish and Iraqi armed forces to regain some territory and recapture the Mosul Dam, the country's biggest.
Ben Rhodes, the deputy White House national security adviser, said on Aug. 22 that the U.S. will consider airstrikes against Islamic State in Syria as well as in Iraq.
The group declared an Islamic caliphate in Syria and Iraq in June after capturing Mosul, northern Iraq's biggest city, and other towns. Its advance in Iraq prompted the U.S. to send military advisers and eventually to carry out airstrikes. American aircraft have flown more than 1,500 patrols, or sorties, over Iraq since Obama authorized the action on Aug. 8, according to the U.S. Central Command.
Islamic State is one of the many groups fighting to oust Assad. The more secular rebels backed by the U.S. and its allies have enjoyed less success on the battlefield.
While the Sunni Muslim group's advance in Iraq since June hasn't reached the predominantly Shiite capital, Baghdad, Islamic State has claimed responsibility for a series of attacks there. It said on Twitter yesterday that it carried out twin car bombings at an office of the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia, as well as a suicide attack at a Shiite religious center. At least 26 people were reported killed in the blasts.
Islamic State has targeted Iraq's majority Shiites as well as Christians and other minorities, and received support from some Iraqi Sunnis who say they suffered discrimination under the Shiite-led government of Nouri al-Maliki.
Maliki said this month he's agreed to step down after eight years in power. His designated successor, Haidar al-Abadi, has drawn support both from the U.S., which says Iraq needs a more unifying government to combat Islamic State, and from Iran, a key backer for many Shiite groups in its neighbor.
--With assistance from Zaid Sabah and Tony Capaccio in Washington and Aziz Alwan in Baghdad.
To contact the reporters on this story: Donna Abu-Nasr in Dubai at dabunasrbloomberg.net; Zainab Fattah in Dubai at zfattahbloomberg.net To contact the editors responsible for this story: Alaa Shahine at asalhabloomberg.net Amy Teibel, Ben Holland