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Obama approves spy flights over Syria

Surveillance to gather intelligence on ISIL fighters could pave way for airstrikes against the group in Syria

The United States has approved surveillance flights over Syria, after President Barack Obama gave the authorization, U.S. officials said, a move that could pave the way for airstrikes against Islamic State fighters.

While the White House says Obama has not approved military action inside Syria, additional intelligence on the Islamic State would likely be necessary before he could take that step. Pentagon officials have been drafting potential options for the president, including airstrikes.

One official said the administration has a need for reliable intelligence from Syria and called the flights an important avenue.

Two U.S. officials previously said on Monday that Obama had approved the flights, while according to the Associated Press, another U.S. official said early Tuesday that they had begun, something which could not be indepedently confirmed

"We're not going to comment on intelligence or operational issues," said White House National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden. "As we've been saying, we'll use all the tools at our disposal when it comes to the protection of our people."

The development could mark the first step towards U.S. airstrikes against targets inside Syria, which have already been ongoing against the Islamic State in Iraq since earlier in the month. Obama cited the threat to American personnel in Iraq and a humanitarian crisis in the north as his rationale there, but top Pentagon officials have said the only way the threat from IS can be fully eliminated is to go after the group inside neighboring Syria as well.

The Islamic State announced last week that it had beheaded American journalist James Foley in Syria and was threatening more U.S. hostages.

The new U.S. front against the Islamic State has put the Obama administration in an uncomfortable situation of wanting to roll back gains made by the militant group, but at the same time not wanting to help the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, who it has long blamed for a Syrian civil war that has killed some 180,000 people.

Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, and president of the Syrian Studies Association, told Al Jazeera that advisers to Obama had been telling the president that the U.S. would only be able to uproot the Islamic State group by becoming involved in Syria.

But the dilemma Obama was facing was the lack of partners in Syria, Landis said. Neither the Syrian government, nor the fragmented moderate rebels, could be seen as reliable allies.

U.S. officials have said privately that Washington has no plans to seek consent from the Damascus regime for any military flights, according to Reuters.

The Syrian government on Monday warned that Syria must be involved in coordinating any air strikes against the Islamic State group in Syria.

In a news conference in Damascus, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said his country was ready to work with the international community — including its rivals, the U.S. and U.K. — to battle against "terrorists."

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also said Western nations that long refused to condemn Assad's enemies were now coming to realize the threat posed by the Islamic State group.

The West, he said, will "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."

Moscow has been a close ally of Damascus for decades, and has provided it with weapons and funding to help support Assad throughout the current conflict.

The U.N. Security Council passed a rare unanimous resolution on August 15 that was intended to weaken armed groups in Iraq and Syria by choking off their funding and stemming the flow of foreign fighters.

The resolution targeted both the Islamic State group, formerly aligned with Al-Qaeda, and the al-Nusra Front, which is Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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