WASHINGTON – The embattled Syrian regime and its closest allies, Russia and Iran, will oppose American military action in its territory against Islamic State, unless the White House coordinates US actions with President Bashar Assad, the axis said on Thursday.
The group expressed its opposition to American force, which it called an “aggressive” and “illegal” intervention in a sovereign state, hours after President Barack Obama announced his intent to target Islamic State terrorists “wherever they exist.”
But the White House made clear that the president’s decision had already been made. Strikes will begin against targets in Syria “at a time and place” of his choosing, senior aides said.
“This is something the president has decided to do,” one official said. “We will take action.”
And in Iraq, the official continued, “we are going to expand the efforts of our air campaign... if there is an [Islamic State] target that we need to hit in Iraq, we will hit it.”
With its veto power on the United Nations Security Council, Russia has long opposed foreign intervention in the Syrian civil war, which it considers a domestic political conflict.
Russia suggested on Thursday that without UN authorization, American action would be illegal.
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“The US president has spoken directly about the possibility of strikes by the US armed forces against ISIL [Islamic State] positions in Syria without the consent of the legitimate government,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said. “This step, in absence of a UN Security Council decision, would be an act of aggression, a gross violation of international law.”
Relations between Moscow and Washington are at a post- Cold War nadir, soured ever since Russia intervened in the civil strife embroiling Ukraine.
That conflict has been stoked by Russia, the Obama administration contends, and should be considered a domestic political conflict within sovereign borders.
“Any action of any type without the approval of the Syrian government is an aggression against Syria,” Ali Haidar, minister of national reconciliation affairs, told reporters in Damascus on Thursday. “There must be cooperation with Syria and coordination with Syria, and there must be a Syrian approval of any action, whether it is military or not.”
At the same time, Syria’s deputy foreign minister said that his government was “ready to talk” to the US, and that the two were “natural allies” fighting “the same enemy.”
The Obama administration says the Assad regime has “lost all legitimacy,” however, and refuses to cooperate with Damascus.
State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said on Thursday that strikes in Syria would not target the Assad regime.
“Obviously we believe Assad has lost legitimacy, but that is separate from our fight against ISIL,” Harf said.
Iran, too, questioned the breadth of the coalition that Washington says represents the international community.
“The so-called international coalition to fight ISIL is shrouded in serious ambiguities,” Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham said, according to state-run television, noting that some coalition members were “financial and military supporters of terrorists in Iraq and Syria.”
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has raised the possibility that Islamic State might have been created by the United States.
The Islamic State organization, which considers itself Sunni, calls for the conversion or killing of all Shi’ites and violently opposes the government in Tehran.
While Obama officials say Tehran can play a constructive role in supporting inclusive governance in Baghdad, they have ruled out military cooperation with the Iranian government.
Sunni powers, historically antagonistic to the Islamic Republic, signed a document in Saudi Arabia on Thursday committing to “appropriate” military cooperation with the United States.
The Jeddah communiqué was signed by ministers representing the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council and Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon.
In a 15-minute televised address, Obama said Islamic State did not yet pose a direct threat to the US – but that it might in short order, if left unchecked.
“We will conduct a systematic campaign of air strikes against these terrorists,” he said from the White House. “This is a core principle of my presidency: If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.”
Islamic State is neither Islamic, nor a state, the president said, despite ruling territories throughout eastern Syria and northern Iraq. The group has corralled together an army with strength estimated at between 10,000 and 30,000 men.
“It will take time to eradicate a cancer like ISIL,” he continued, adding, “Any time we take military action, there are risks involved.”
But “our own safety – our own security – depends upon our willingness to do what it takes to defend this nation, and uphold the values that we stand for, timeless ideals that will endure long after those who offer only hate and destruction have been vanquished from the Earth,” he continued.
Obama said he already has the authority to act without a new vote for authorization from the US Congress, based on a 2001 authorization vote that allows the president to target al-Qaida and its affiliates.
But the White House has requested a swift vote in Congress on providing $500 million in aid for the training and equipping of moderate Syrian fighters.
The US seeks a force in Syria that can hold ground cleared by American air power.
Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner (R-Ohio) said on Thursday that he supported the measure, and that the president had made a “compelling case for action.”
“These are serious discussions. This is a very serious issue. And it ought to be handled that way,” Boehner said.
But the speaker continued with a critique of the overall strategy, arguing that air power alone would not be sufficient in halting Islamic State. “Somebody’s boots have to be on the ground,” he said.
Germany and Turkey announced on Thursday that, while they were a part of the US-led coalition, they do not intend to participate in the air campaign. The British foreign secretary suggested the United Kingdom, too, would abstain from the strikes, but Prime Minister David Cameron’s office said that no decision had yet been made on the use of British force.
Those governments, along with other NATO alliance members and Australia, Egypt, Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, among others, have agreed to cooperate with the US in its mission.
“Conversations are now under way” on what nations will play what roles in the coalition, US officials said. Instead of military power, some may instead provide funding and training for rebels, while others still will contribute political support.
In the Jeddah communiqué, signatories agreed to join “in many aspects... [of] a coordinated military campaign against ISIL.”
It requires them to halt the arming and financing of Islamic State from their countries, and to publicly repudiate its “hateful ideology.”
“The role played by regional states is central to this effort,” the Gulf states said.
The Pentagon is prepared to begin air strikes as ordered, one senior defense official said after Obama’s speech.
“The US military is ready to conduct direct action against ISIL targets in Syria,” the official said. “Decisions about when to conduct these actions will be made at a prudent time.”
US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the army was prepared to launch the broad offensive upon the president’s order.
“The men and women of the US armed forces are ready to carry out the orders of our commander- in-chief, to work with our partners across government, and to work with our friends and allies around the world to accomplish this mission,” Hagel said.
From Jordan, Secretary of State John Kerry said the US effort to build an international coalition against Islamic State was already well under way. Kerry was in Baghdad on Wednesday, praising the creation of a new, inclusive government that could take on the security challenge of the terrorist group.
“We are uniting the world against a unified threat, and the president’s strategy will succeed because doing it with allies and partners isn’t just smart, it’s strong,” Kerry said.
The secretary attended the GCC deliberations in Jeddah on Thursday, endorsing the language of the final document. US officials say the Saudis are prepared to “fully cooperate” on training moderate Syrian rebels to help combat the group, and have agreed to host a train-andequip program for moderate Syrian groups.
Rounding out the coalition- building trip, Kerry will travel to Ankara and Cairo for strategic consultations over the weekend.
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