ISTANBUL — The Syrian government on Monday warned the United States against launching unilateral attacks against the Islamic State extremist group on its territory, but Washington said it wouldn’t seek the Assad regime’s permission to defend American lives.
At the same time, the Obama administration sought to tamp down expectations of imminent airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria that top U.S. officials raised last week after the group ignited outrage by posting a video of the beheading of a captive American journalist.
“We need to confront this threat in a sustainable way,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest, who added that President Barack Obama has made no decision on military action in Syria. “It can’t just be through brute U.S. military force.”
A U.S. defense official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, was more direct: “A strike is not imminent.”
The mixed messages over potential military operations were the latest evidence that Syria continues to bedevil the Obama administration. Some experts think administration officials are provoking public confusion about U.S. intentions there.
“There has been a remarkable lack of message discipline,” said Daniel Benjamin, who served as the State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator in 2009-12 and now is the director of Dartmouth University’s Dickey Center for International Understanding.
“There were remarkably bellicose statements heralding imminent military action, yet there are lots of spokesmen walking things back and putting different spins on things,” he continued. “It’s quite confusing.”
Speaking in Damascus, Deputy Prime Minister Walid al Moallem said his government would “cooperate and coordinate” with any countries, including the United States, in fighting the Islamic State, which has used the Syrian territory it’s conquered as a springboard for a cross-border offensive that’s overrun roughly half of neighboring Iraq.
Although it wasn’t the first time that Syria has made such an offer, the timing was significant. It came a day after the Islamic State dealt a major blow to the Assad regime by capturing the Tabqa air force base, which gave it total control of eastern Raqqa province. It also brought the al Qaida spinoff more military hardware and fresh momentum for advances it’s been pressing elsewhere, including on Aleppo, Syria’s commercial capital and largest city.
Moallem said the regime of President Bashar Assad would have to approve any military action against the group in Syria and such action would have to be “approached in a serious manner, without double standards” and not “weaken Syria.”
“Cooperation should be carried out through the Syrian government, which is a symbol of national sovereignty,” the official SANA news agency quoted him as telling a news conference. Referring to a recent U.N. Security Council resolution, Moallem said the document “does not authorize anyone to act alone against any country.”
“Any strike which is not coordinated with the government will be considered as aggression,” said Moallem, whose comment implied that the regime would respond with force to unauthorized military action.
“Being serious in combating terrorism isn’t achieved by transgressing against others’ sovereignty,” he said.
Moallem’s hedged welcome for international assistance seemed to be directed at the Obama administration, which has launched more than 90 airstrikes against Islamic State fighters this month in northern Iraq to prevent the massacre of thousands of members of a religious minority and to defend the autonomous Kurdish region.
In Washington, administration officials made it clear that there would be no advanced consultation on airstrikes with Assad, whom the United States has accused of war crimes, including using chemical weapons against civilians, and has demanded that he leave power.
“When American lives are at stake, when we’re talking about defending our interests, we’re not looking for the approval of the Assad regime,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
She bristled at suggestions by some former U.S. officials and experts that the United States should cooperate with Assad as they’re fighting on the same side, reiterating the U.S. position that the Damascus regime’s brutalities helped the Islamic State’s ascendency in Syria.
“We would not view it as being on the same side because there’s a common enemy,” she said.
Senior Obama administration officials raised expectations last week that an expansion of U.S. airstrikes into Syria was in the offing after the Islamic State posted a video of the beheading of American freelance journalist James Foley in retaliation for the U.S. attacks in Iraq.
Secretary of State John Kerry said the Islamic State had to be destroyed, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel decried it as “an imminent threat to every interest we have” and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the group couldn’t be crushed unless it was eliminated in its Syrian strongholds.
Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said, “Absolutely when you see somebody killed in such a horrific way, that represents a terrorist attack. That represents a terrorist attack against our country and against an American citizen.”
Administration officials sought to roll back those expectations Monday, with Dempsey saying on a flight to Kabul, Afghanistan, that he’d recommend striking the Islamic State in Syria if it were determined to be plotting an attack on the American homeland, something the United States is not currently aware of.
Pentagon officials said they were assessing strike options in Syria. Amid threats by the Syrian government that it would strike down any U.S. aircraft in its airspace, Defense officials stressed that they could launch airstrikes on Syria from neighboring countries, such as Iraq. That said, they didn’t rule out Syria’s air power as a possible threat to U.S. aircraft flying overhead.
U.S. officials sought to draw a distinction between the immediate threat the Islamic State poses to Middle East security, including U.S. personnel and facilities in the region, and the danger created by the return home of thousands of European and North American extremists who’ve been fighting with the group in Syria and Iraq.
Dempsey “believes that ISIS is a regional threat that will soon become a threat to the United States and Europe,” said the general’s spokesman, Air Force Col. Ed Thomas, using one of the group’s acronyms. “He believes ISIS must be pressured both in Iraq and in Syria. He believes that it will be necessary to form a coalition of capable regional and European partners to confront the ISIS threat.”
Earnest also indicated that a decision to strike the group in Syria hinged on whether the United States determines that it’s planning to attack the U.S. homeland.
“We are concerned about the threat that is posed by ISIL,” said Earnest, using the U.S. government acronym for the Islamic State. “But it is the assessment, as stated by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, by the intelligence community, that there currently is not an active plot underway to attack the U.S.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story had a typographical error in a quote from State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki and gave the wrong title for Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Lesley Clark and Hannah Allam contributed to this article from Washington.