Syria continues to bedevil Washington amid mixed signals on potential strikes

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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 condition of anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity, 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 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, Syria’s Deputy Prime Minister Walid al-Moallem said his government would “cooperate and coordinate” with any countries, including the U.S., in fighting the Islamic State, which has used the Syrian territory that it has conquered as a springboard for a cross-border offensive that has 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 has been pressing elsewhere, including on Aleppo, Syria’s commercial capital and largest city.

Mr. 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.”

“Any strike which is not coordinated with the government will be considered as aggression,” said Mr. 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.

Mr. 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 clear that there would be no advanced consultation on airstrikes with Mr. 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 former U.S. officials and experts that the United States should cooperate with Mr. Assad since both nations would be confronting the same enemy as she reiterated 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.

Administration officials sought to roll back those expectations Monday, with Gen. Martin Dempsey, Joint Chiefs chairman, saying on a flight to Kabul, Afghanistan, that he would recommend striking the Islamic State in Syria if it were determined to be plotting an attack on the U.S. homeland, a prospect the United States is not now aware of.


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