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Syria warns US: No unilateral strikes on militants

Tuesday - 8/26/2014, 6:26am  ET

White House press secretary Josh Earnest gestures during the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, Monday, Aug. 25, 2014, where he took questions on ISIS, Iraq, and Syria. He also received congratulations for his newborn baby. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

RYAN LUCAS
Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) -- 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 airstrikes without Damascus' 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 clamor among some U.S. officials, including military leaders, to expand the current American air campaign against the Islamic extremists in Iraq and to hit them in Syria as well.

President Barack Obama has long been wary of getting dragged into the bloody and complex Syrian civil war that the United Nations 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 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, Obama faces pressure from his own military leaders to go after the extremists inside Syria.

On Monday, a senior administration official said Obama authorized surveillance flights over Syria, a move that could pave the way for U.S. airstrikes. The official who confirmed the decision was not authorized to discuss Obama's decision publicly by name, and insisted on anonymity.

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 airstrikes against Assad's government in the wake of the chemical attack. Since then, global disapproval has shifted away from Assad and toward the Islamic extremists who are fighting him and spreading destruction across Syria and Iraq.

Al-Moallem told reporters his government is ready "to cooperate and coordinate" with any side, including the U.S., or join any regional or international alliance against the Islamic State group. But he said any military action inside Syria should be coordinated with the Syrian government.

"Any strike which is not coordinated with the government will be considered as aggression," he said.

He said Damascus has warned repeatedly 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 Assad as "terrorists" in a foreign conspiracy.

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.

Mustafa Alani, the director of the security and defense department at the Gulf Research Center 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 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," 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 cooperate 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 Abbas regime's warnings about the Islamic State group ring hollow to many in the opposition, who have watched Damascus turn a blind eye to the militants' 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.

The breakaway al-Qaida group is the most powerful faction fighting Assad's forces, which means a U.S. campaign to weaken the Islamic State extremists could actually strengthen a leader the White House has sought to push from office. Obama could try to counteract that awkward dynamic by also targeting Assad's forces, though that could drag the U.S. into the bloody, complex conflict -- something he has studiously tried to avoid.

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