US spy flights over Syria: Preparing for airstrikes on the Islamic State?

Senior US military officials have been increasingly vocal about the need to treat the Islamic State as a regional threat, which could involve US military action in Syria.

Kathy Willens/AP
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey says Islamic State militants cannot be fully eliminated without going after the group in Syria, as well as in Iraq.

The US military has begun flying surveillance missions over Syria, officials confirmed this week, after being given the green light by President Obama.

So what, precisely, can the Pentagon learn from these overflights – and are they necessarily a prelude to airstrikes?

While being careful not to comment on potential airstrikes, senior military officials have been increasingly vocal about the need to treat the Islamic State as a regional threat, which could involve US military action in Syria.

“Can they [IS] be defeated without addressing that part of their organization which resides in Syria?” Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week. “The answer is no.”

Instead, the Islamic militant group, which is now functioning as a state in a large swath of Syria and Iraq, “will have to be addressed on both sides of what is essentially at this point a nonexistent border,” Gen. Dempsey said. 

The US military has been conducting about 60 surveillance flights per day over Iraq – at the request of the Iraqi government, Pentagon officials are quick to point out.

But US intelligence on IS is limited. “We are starting from a baseline of next-to-no knowledge about this,” says Christopher Harmer, Senior Naval Analyst with the Middle East Security Project at the Institute for the Study of War.

“We’ve got a lot of strategic-level analysis going on – a lot of think tanks, politicians, a lot of what we in the military used to call ‘BOGSAT’ – a bunch of guys sitting around talking,” adds Mr. Harmer, who was a former Deputy Director of Future Operations for the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet. “But if you want to do something you need tactical-level intelligence.”

US military surveillance flights over Syria can reveal some key specifics about IS that might allow the Pentagon to carry out air strikes, should they be called upon to do so.

“Are they using the Syrian army bases that they’ve taken over as points of departure for their operations, or not?” says Harmer. If they are using these bases as staging centers, for example, they are a good military target. But IS leaders could be aware of this and be “ignoring them” after seizing them, he adds.

“If we are very lucky, IS would be occupying Syrian bases en mass, so you just need to bomb the base,” Harmer says. “But I don’t think those guys are going to gift-wrap targets like that for us.”

Whether IS is moving supplies by convoy, and the extent to which their fighters mix with or are separated from the Syrian population are other questions surveillance flights might help answer.

But there are a number of questions that surveillance flights cannot answer, analysts point out. 

“We don’t really have a good idea of their internal command-and-control, questions like how are they deciding to move fighters,” Harmer says. “We have no heavy-hitting partners on the ground giving us intelligence, and there’s only so much you can figure out from the outside looking in.” 

And in order for the US military to be able to focus on gathering the relevant intelligence from the air, it must have marching orders in the form of a “clear, comprehensive, coherent, and realistic strategy,” says retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, the principal attack planner for the Operation Desert Storm air campaign in 1991. 

The strategy will guide the military in what intelligence it needs to gather, he points out. 

For this reason, the object of the reconnaissance flight – which could include air strikes and intelligence-gathering – “is only going to be realized when that power is guided by a comprehensive strategy,” Mr. Deptula adds. “No amount of kinetic force can make up for that.” 

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