WASHINGTON — The United States would retaliate against Syrian President Bashar Assad's air defenses if he were to go after American planes launching airstrikes in his country, senior Obama administration officials said Monday.
Officials said the U.S. has a good sense of where the Syrian air defenses, along with their command and control centers, are located. If Assad were to use those capabilities to threaten U.S. forces, it would put his air defenses at risk, according to the officials, who insisted on anonymity in order to discuss the administration's thinking on the matter.
President Barack Obama has authorized U.S. airstrikes inside Syria as part of a broad campaign to root out the Islamic State militant group, though no strikes have yet been launched in the country.
Asked Monday about the prospect of striking Assad's regime if his forces were to target Americans, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said there will be "rules of engagement that are related to any military orders the president directs."
"It won't surprise you to know that there are contingencies related to self-defense when it comes to these sorts of rules of engagement," he said.
The mere discussion of launching strikes in Syria has highlighted the complexity of taking U.S. military action inside a country locked in an intractable civil war. The conflict has created odd alliances, with both the U.S. and the Assad regime now fighting the Islamic State militant group.
However, U.S. officials have ruled out direct coordination with Assad and insist that a campaign against the Islamic State will not strengthen the Syrian dictator's hold on power. Obama is seeking congressional authorization to train and arm Western-backed rebels in the country in hopes they can both fight the Islamic State and eventually the Assad regime.
Officials said Obama has been making phone calls in recent days to lawmakers in both parties pressing for them to authorize the train-and-equip mission before lawmakers leave town Friday for an almost two-month recess in preparation for November's midterm elections.
The rise of the Islamic State group has put Obama on the brink of being drawn into a Syrian conflict he has long sought to avoid. Administration officials have long insisted that one of their concerns with taking airstrikes against the Assad regime is the government's formidable air defenses, which could put American forces at risk.
Those air defense capabilities are less prominent in the more desolate stretches of eastern Syria where U.S. warplanes are likely to fly in order to launch airstrikes. However, officials have said that air defense systems can be moved and thus must be monitored as the U.S. mission ramps up.
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