US Denies Working with Damascus, Presents ISIS War Request to Congress

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Published Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Updated at 4:45 pm (GMT+2): The United States on Tuesday denied that it was coordinating airstrikes either directly or indirectly with the Syrian regime against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as the White House seeks a three-year authorization for a war against the Islamist militants.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama on Tuesday confirmed the death of US hostage Kayla Mueller.

In an interview with the BBC on Tuesday, President Bashar al-Assad said Damascus was being informed about the US-led coalition airstrikes against ISIS.

Assad said the messages were conveyed through third parties, including neighboring Iraq, where Washington and Western allies are also carrying out strikes against ISIS.

"We're not communicating or coordinating our military operations with the Assad regime. We're not doing it directly. We're not doing it indirectly," Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby told reporters.

Assad, however, was clear in saying there was no dialogue with third parties, but that the Syrian government was receiving “information” of the coalition airstrikes.

"Sometimes, they convey a message, a general message. There is no dialogue. There's, let's say, information, but not dialogue," Assad said.

Before the strikes were launched in Syria in September, Washington did "inform the Syrian regime directly of our intent to take action through our ambassador to the United Nations," recalled State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, repeating information given at the time.

"We did not request the regime's permission. We did not coordinate our actions with the Syrian government," she said.

"We did not provide advance notifications to the Syrians at a military level, nor give any indication of our timing on specific targets."

Washington had also warned Damascus "not to engage US aircraft."

The US position remains that "Assad has lost all legitimacy and must go... There cannot be a stable inclusive Syria under Assad's leadership," Psaki added.

She also insisted that his interview with the BBC had to be "taken with a grain of salt."

In the same interview, "he denied the use of barrel bombs, chlorine and also the indiscriminate killing of his own people," Psaki said.

White House seeks war authority against ISIS

Meanwhile, the White House revealed to lawmakers on Tuesday details of its request to Congress for a three-year war authority to battle ISIS that would prohibit "enduring" offensive combat operations.

The authorization for use of military force (AUMF) would also allow for use of US special forces, and would not restrict operations to a geographic area, several Democratic senators said after a closed-door briefing by White House officials.

Obama's team has been deliberating for months on how to move ahead in the next phase of its years-long war against militant jihadists.

The White House is expected this week to unveil its proposal for authority to combat ISIS, and administration officials have stepped up their deliberations with congressional leaders.

The new AUMF would supersede the open-ended war authority which Congress passed in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in 2001. The administration currently uses the 2001 authority to prosecute military action against ISIS, in particular US-led airstrikes on the group's forces in Iraq and Syria.

On December 11, in a 10-to-8 party-line vote, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the AUMF.

Lawmakers have stressed that no official war authority language has been released.

"It was an opening salvo," Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said after the briefing. "There was nothing finalized yet."

Democratic Senator Robert Menendez said a key plank of the proposal, according to the White House briefers, required "no enduring offensive combat" operations, a qualifier he acknowledged could face opposition in Congress.

"Unless that is further defined, that might be seen as too big a statement to ultimately embrace because, forget about Barack Obama, there would be a new president in two years," Menendez said.

"The challenge to get a broad bipartisan AUMF is threading the needle between not having too expansive an authorization that can be used for an open-ended, prolonged conflict, and however giving an authorization that gives the president the wherewithal to effectively defeat ISIL," he added, using an alternative acronym for ISIS.

Senator Dianne Feinstein said she understood that the request for a three-year authorization would allow for special operations.

But "I think the big discussion will be over how you word the language on troops," the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee said.

Some Republicans were already pushing back.

"I will agree to nothing that restricts the president's latitude of action," hawkish Senator John McCain told reporters, referring to military action and not national-level policies.

Language barring enduring combat operations "would be unacceptable to me," he said, adding that any debate about the war authority should not be rushed.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said he was briefed by the White House by phone and was disturbed that the new authority would not allow US forces to protect US-trained Syrian rebels against air attacks by strongman Assad's military.

"I'll be a no to that," he said.

Obama requested $8.8 billion to fund the fight against ISIS in his 2016 budget unveiled early February.

A total of $5.3 billion would go to the Pentagon to finance Operation Inherent Resolve, which was launched in August with a series of airstrikes against militants in Iraq, before expanding to Syria in September.

The State Department, which has been leading efforts to build a multinational coalition against ISIS, has requested a further $3.5 billion.

The US-led coalition of around 60 mainly Western and Arab states was formed several months after ISIS swept across northern Iraq, seizing swathes of territory and proclaiming a caliphate in parts of the country as well as regions in neighboring Syria.

The effect of the open-ended US-led air campaign remains the subject of debate, with the White House saying the militants have been damaged by the strikes and critics pointing to ISIS’ advances and battlefield successes despite the raids.

The Pentagon announced on January 23 that ISIS has lost only a tiny fraction of captured territory in Iraq after five months of US-led airstrikes. That amounted to roughly one percent of ISIS-held territory changing hands since the US launched air raids in Iraq on August 8.

However, Kurdish and Iraqi forces have since reclaimed territory from ISIS in Iraq, and the symbolic Syrian town of Kobane has been seized back by Kurdish fighters.

Damascus, Iran and other critics opposed to US involvement in the conflict with ISIS have pointed out that Washington in partnership with its Gulf allies, including Saudi Arabia, played a role in the formation and expansion of extremist groups like ISIS by arming, financing and politically empowering armed opposition groups in Syria.

US hostage confirmed dead

Obama confirmed Tuesday the death of 26-year-old aid worker, who was captured in August 2013 in Aleppo, the war-ravaged city in northern Syria.

The US president vowed that Washington would hunt down the jihadists it held responsible for her death, as her family spoke of their heartbreak at losing "a free spirit."

"No matter how long it takes, the United States will find and bring to justice the terrorists who are responsible for Kayla's captivity and death," Obama said in a statement.

ISIS claimed last week she had been killed in an airstrike by a Jordanian warplane in Raqqa, the militant group's self-proclaimed "capital," also in Syria.

US officials on Tuesday said they remained skeptical of ISIS’ claims that Mueller died in an airstrike, noting there had been no evidence of civilians at that site before it was targeted.

"That certainly would call into question the claims that are made by ISIL," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.

The White House said ISIS had sent Mueller's distraught family a "private message" that was "authenticated" by intelligence, allowing them to confirm her death. The Washington Post reported that Mueller's parents had been sent a photo of their daughter's lifeless body.

"Our hearts are breaking for our only daughter, but we will continue on in peace, dignity, and love for her," her parents Carl and Marsha Mueller said.

In a letter released by her relatives, Mueller said she took strength during captivity in her faith in God and the love of her family.

"I have been shown in darkness, light + have learned that even in prison, one can be free," said a handwritten letter by Mueller which was smuggled out by fellow captives following their release by ISIS jihadists.

She also revealed times of doubt and darkness, but also resolve as she summoned the will to keep going.

(AFP, Al-Akhbar)


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