WASHINGTON — The Obama administration has ruled out the possibility of coordinating any U.S. airstrikes in Syria with President Bashar Assad's government, forcing U.S. officials to either design a campaign that would evade Syrian air defenses or coordinate it with Assad through a third party.
Despite the shared U.S. and Syrian interest in defeating Islamist militants in the region, there will be no cooperation with Assad, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Tuesday.
"We're not going to ask for permission from the Syrian regime," she said.
With top U.S. officials describing the Islamic State militant group as a growing threat to international security, some form of stepped-up U.S. action appears increasingly likely and could include an expansion of the American air war from Iraq into Syria. Whether done in concert with Assad or not, airstrikes would be a strategic benefit to Assad more than three years after the start of the uprising against his rule.
Airstrikes, even if officially opposed by Assad as a violation of Syrian sovereignty, would also put Obama and Assad on the same side of a war Obama has been loath to join.
The White House stressed Tuesday that Obama has made no decision on whether to conduct airstrikes in Syria, even amid signs of stepped-up U.S. activity in the region, including his authorization of surveillance flights there.
Syria's foreign minister warned Monday against unilateral U.S. strikes but welcomed a broader regional approach to fighting the militants, opening the possibility that the administration could rely on partners to coordinate any attacks. U.S. officials said there has been no such coordination to date and none is planned, though they did not rule it out.
Any unilateral action would mean testing Syria's air defenses or the response of Assad's forces.
While the U.S. military has penetrated Syrian airspace on at least one occasion since the start of the civil war — during a failed bid earlier this year to rescue journalist James Foley and other Americans being held by the Islamic State — that raid involved the use of modified Black Hawk helicopters.
The helicopters are designed to fly into hostile air space and conceivably could have been flown at very low altitudes to avoid radar detection. Surveillance aircraft, however, operate high and slow, and could be shot down by both the Syrian air force and the country's air defense grid.
In addition to fielding a moderately capable air force, Syria possesses advanced surface-to-air missile systems like the SA-22 Greyhound, according to Military Balance, a publication issued by the International Institute of Strategic Studies that documents foreign military capabilities. The SA-22 can hit targets up to 65,000 feet, believed to be the maximum altitude of the high-flying Global Hawk.
The Pentagon has begun identifying potential targets, but it is not clear how soon any U.S. airstrikes might come.
"This is a serious threat from a serious group of terrorists, and we need to stay mindful of doing what we need to do to protect American citizens at home and abroad," Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said Tuesday.
"We're not going to hold ourselves to geographic boundaries in order to accomplish that job."
Asked whether Syrian air defenses had been degraded over the past year, Kirby indicated no. "There has been no change in our assessment of Syrian air defense capabilities," he said.
Any U.S. operation would most likely focus on Islamic State leadership in their main haven around Raqqah, in Syria's north, and along the vast Iraqi border, analysts said. American planes are operating at the invitation of Iraqi leaders next door, and could use the Iraqi airspace to launch long-range weapons into Syria.
Still, "without some degree of coordination, the risks for armed intervention in Syria will be hard to control and manage. There's greater room for miscalculation and human error," said Ramzy Mardini, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Center who has studied the strengths and weaknesses of the Islamic State.
The United States should be wary of using allied rebels to coordinate airstrikes, Mardini added. "There's a conflict of interest and an incentive to pull the U.S. into direct conflict with the Assad regime."
Julien Barnes-Dacey, a Mideast analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said public U.S.-Syria coordination is out of the question politically for the United States and probably for Assad. Despite being strange bedfellows, Assad would probably welcome strikes if hey were coordinated between the two governments, Barnes-Dacey said.
"Assad's biggest foe today is Islamic State," and the Obama administration now identifies the group as an instant threat, Barnes-Dacey said. "That inevitably draws them together in spheres of action."
U.S. policy has been to support political moderates and their affiliated rebel army, but was reluctant to offer much military help to the rebels because of the fear that militants would benefit. Meanwhile, United Nations-sponsored peace talks fell apart almost as soon as they were convened earlier this year.
The United States long ago abandoned hopes that Assad could be an Arab reformer and Obama demanded his ouster just months into the rebel uprising in 2011.
"There are no plans to change that policy and there are no plans to coordinate with the Assad regime," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said.
Washington Post staff writers Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Craig Whitlock contributed to this report.