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With Drones In Flight Over Syria, Questions Of Airstrikes Rise With Them


Once again President Obama is having to decide whether to use military force. It's a key item on the agenda today for the president and the National Security Council. This time the question is whether the U.S. should expand its bombing campaign against the extremist group known as the Islamic State. The president spoke late this afternoon at the White House.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: For our part, I’ve directed Secretary Hagel and our joint chiefs of staff to prepare a range of options.

SIEGEL: One of those options would be to launch air strikes against the Islamic State inside Syria. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman has been following developments and joins us now. Hi, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hello, Robert.

SIEGEL: The military has already conducted some airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq. There's been a lot of speculation about broadening that campaign into Syria. Any sense of a timetable for that decision?

BOWMAN: Well, Robert, the president today indicated this may take a while before he reaches a decision. He wants to first consult with allies, members of the Congress. And these surveillance flights over Syria have only just begun. It will take some time to gather intelligence for possible airstrikes.

SIEGEL: Yes, as you said, the Pentagon has been authorized to begin reconnaissance flights over Syria. If the president were to give approval to airstrikes in Syria, what kind of targets might the military be looking at there?

BOWMAN: Well, this of course is the headquarters of the group known as the Islamic State. So targets could include let's say headquarters, barracks, supply lines, checkpoints, armor and artillery. The Islamic State has also taken an airfield in this area that previously had been under Syrian government control. So that presents a pretty good target. And remember, these drones would not just be taking pictures and video. They'd also be intercepting communications, radios, cell phones, about where the troops are and their leaders and intentions and so forth. So there's a lot to be learned.

SIEGEL: What's the strategy here? What would be achieved by bombing Islamic State targets inside Syria?

BOWMAN: Well, bombing doesn't really achieve much on its own. And people I talk with on Capitol Hill, as well as defense analysts and folks in the Pentagon say there is no strategy. And the president acknowledged that today, saying we don't have a strategy yet. And so far there are just limited U.S. airstrikes in Iraq. And they're narrowly focused. It's just to protect Americans from ISIS advance in the city of Erbil and also to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe. Remember, ISIS was attacking that religious sect - the Yazidis.

SIEGEL: Yeah, those were fairly narrow aims. Expanding airstrikes into Syria would appear to be a much broader mission than what we've seen in Iraq, no?

BOWMAN: Yeah, it would be. And the question is what's the goal? Is it to destroy this group - the Islamic State - or just to begin containing it? Or is it to punish them for killing the American journalist James Foley. So everyone's focused on airstrikes. But the president indicated this is not just about airstrikes. And others have said that as well. Airstrikes are just a small part of this. This is going to be a long-term solution, he said, and it's largely political, diplomatic and economic. You have to use all tools of national power. And the biggest part of this, Robert, may be making sure the Sunnis in both Iraq and Syria have a greater voice in their government. Now the Sunnis, of course, are supporting ISIS. They're being oppressed by both the leaders in Syria and Iraq. And as General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs said just last week, ISIS will only be defeated when it's rejected by the 20 million disenfranchised Sunnis from Damascus to Baghdad.

SIEGEL: The president also said that the threat of ISIS or the Islamic State has drawn together countries that are often at odds over other issues and he's dispatched Secretary of State Kerry to the region.

BOWMAN: That's right. That's a big part of this too - bringing in the Saudis, the Jordanians and others to help support the anti-ISIS rebels.

SIEGEL: OK. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thanks.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.