Syria said Monday it was ready to help confront the rising threat from the Islamic State group, but warned the United States against carrying out air strikes without Damascus’s consent, saying any such attack would be considered an aggression.
In seeking to portray itself as a partner for the international community, Syria seemed intent on capitalizing on the growing clamour among some U.S. officials, including military leaders, to expand the current American air campaign against the Islamist extremists in Iraq and to hit them in Syria as well.
U.S. President Barack Obama has long been wary of getting dragged into the bloody and complex Syrian civil war that the UN says has killed more than 190,000 people. He has resisted intervening militarily in the conflict, even after a deadly chemical-weapons attack a year ago that Washington blamed on President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
But the extremist group’s rampage across wide swaths of Iraq, declaration of a state governed by their harsh interpretation of Islamic law in territory spanning the Iraq-Syria border and grisly beheading of an American journalist have injected a new dynamic into those calculations. Now, Mr. Obama faces pressure from his own military leaders to go after the extremists inside Syria.
General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week that the Islamic State would need to eventually be addressed on “both sides of what is essentially at this point a non-existent border” between Syria and Iraq.
But U.S. officials cautioned Monday that no decision had been made to expand air strikes beyond the limited ones under way in Iraq. “We’re just not there yet,” said a senior U.S. defence official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
However, the Wall Street Journal reported Monday that according to senior U.S. officials, preparations are being made to fly surveillance aircraft over Syria to gather intelligence on Islamic State targets for a possible expansion of the air campaign.
Speaking in Damascus, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem appeared acutely aware of how much has changed since last August, when the U.S. was threatening to carry out punitive air strikes against Mr. al-Assad’s government in the wake of the chemical attack. Since then, global disapproval has shifted away from Mr. al-Assad and toward the Islamist extremists who are fighting him and spreading destruction across Syria and Iraq.
Mr. al-Moallem told reporters his government is ready “to co-operate and co-ordinate” with any side, including the U.S., or join any regional or international alliance against the Islamic Stategroup. But he said any military action inside Syria should be co-ordinated with the government, “which represents Syrian sovereignty.”
“Any strike which is not co-ordinated with the government will be considered as aggression,” he said.
He said Damascus repeatedly has warned of the threat of terrorism and the need to cut off resources and funding, but “no one listened to us.” Syria’s government has long described the rebels fighting to topple Mr. al-Assad as “terrorists” in a foreign conspiracy.
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also said Western nations that long refused to condemn Mr. al-Assad’s enemies were now coming to realize the threat posed by the Islamic State group.
The West, he 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.”
Moscow has been a close ally of Damascus for decades, and has provided it with weapons and funding to help support Mr. al-Assad throughout the current conflict.
Mustafa Alani, the director of the security and defence department at the Gulf Research Centre in Geneva, said Syria’s offer aims to take advantage of current events in Iraq, and the corresponding shift in American and European attitudes about Mr. al-Assad and the Islamic State extremists.
“The Syrian government is trying to say they are on the same side as the international community. The old claim from Day 1 that the Syrians have tried to make is that they are fighting pure terrorism. There’s no revolution, no rebels, no opposition,” Mr. Alani said.
“I don’t see this sort of call being acceptable, especially on the regional level,” he added. “The Americans might find themselves forced to co-operate under the table with the Syrians. But I don’t think Arab countries will accept Syria as a member of the club fighting the Islamic State.”
The Syrian government’s warnings about the Islamic State group ring hollow to many in the opposition, who have watched Damascus turn a blind eye to the Islamist 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.
Islamic State, the breakaway al-Qaeda group, is the most powerful faction fighting Mr. al-Assad’s forces, which means a U.S. campaign to weaken its extremists could actually strengthen a leader the White House has sought to push from office. Mr. Obama could try to counteract that awkward dynamic by also targeting Mr. al-Assad’s forces, though that could drag the U.S. into the bloody, complex conflict – something he has studiously tried to avoid.
Despite Mr. al-Moallem’s warning, there is little the Assad government could do should the U.S. decide to target the Muslim extremists inside Syria.
U.S. officials revealed last week that American special forces had tried to rescue American journalist James Foley in a failed operation in Raqqa in July. Islamic State militants beheaded Mr. Foley last week.
Referring to that failed mission, Mr. al-Moallem said: “Had there been prior co-ordination that operation would not have failed.”
Still, the minister denounced “in the strongest terms possible” Foley’s killing, while also asking: “Has the West ever condemned the massacres by the Islamic State ... against our armed forces or citizens?”
Mr. al-Moallem’s news conference came a day after jihadis captured a major military air base in northeastern Syria, eliminating the last government-held outpost in a province otherwise dominated by the Islamic State group. After several failed attempts, Islamic State fighters stormed the Tabqa air base Sunday, killing dozens of troops inside.
Mr. al-Moallem conceded defeat in Tabqa, saying that soldiers were withdrawn to nearby areas, along with their weaponry and warplanes. Videos posted on militant websites Monday showed celebrations in the nearby town of Tabqa, controlled by the Islamic State group, including fighters honking noisily as they drove in cars carrying the group’s black-and-white flags.
With a report from Reuters
Follow us on Twitter: