US air strikes on Syria would face formidable obstacles

WASHINGTON: American forces face formidable challenges as President Barack Obama considers an air assault on Islamist fighters in Syria, including intelligence gaps on potential targets, concerns about Syria’s air defenses and fears that the militants may have anti-aircraft weapons, current and former US officials say.
The Pentagon began preparing options for an assault on Islamic State fighters after the militants last week posted a gruesome video showing the beheading of American photojournalist James Foley. Deliberations by Obama’s national security team on expanding the campaign against Islamic State from Iraq into neighbouring Syria gathered pace in recent days, officials say.
While it is unclear how soon strikes might be launched, Obama’s go-ahead for aerial reconnaissance over Syria has raised expectations he will approve the attacks rather than back off as he did last year after threatening to strike Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
Any air offensive would likely focus on Islamic State’s leadership and positions around the city of Raqqa in their stronghold of eastern Syria, and border areas that have served as staging grounds for Islamist forces that have swept into Iraq and taken over a third of the country.
But every option carries significant risk.
“There are all kinds of downsides and risks that suggest air strikes in Syria are probably not a great idea,” said Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East adviser under both Republican and Democratic administrations. “But that doesn’t mean they won’t happen anyway.”
Efforts to hit the right targets in Syria will be more difficult than in Iraq, hindered by a shortage of reliable on-the-ground intelligence, in contrast to northern Iraq where Iraqi and Kurdish forces provided intelligence.

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