BEIRUT — While offering to assist any international effort to fight Islamic State militants, Syria's foreign minister warned the U.S. Monday not to conduct airstrikes against the group inside Syria without Damascus' consent, saying any such attack would be considered an aggression.
Walid al-Moallem's words appeared timed to try to pre-empt any U.S. military action in Syria. President Barack Obama has resisted ordering U.S. military action in Syria for three years, even after a deadly chemical weapons attack a year ago near Damascus he blamed on President Bashar Assad's government. But now, Obama faces pressure from his own military leaders to go after the Islamic State group inside Syria.
Obama remains wary, however, of getting dragged into the bloody and complex Syrian civil war that the United Nations says has killed more than 190,000 people.
Al-Moallem's remarks at a news conference in Damascus also marked the first public comments by a senior Assad official on the threat posed by the Islamic State group, which has captured large swaths of Iraqi and Syrian territory.
"Syria is ready to cooperate and coordinate on the regional and international level in the war on terror," al-Moallem said. "But any effort to combat terrorism should be coordinated with the Syrian government."
Al-Moallem appeared keenly aware of how much has changed in the past year as he spoke Monday. Since then, global disapproval has shifted away from Assad and toward the Islamic extremists who are fighting him and spreading destruction across Syria and Iraq.
The foreign minister said the Syrian government repeatedly has warned of the threat of terrorism and the need to cut off resources and funding but "no one listened to us." Syria's government has long described the rebels fighting to topple Assad as "terrorists" in a foreign conspiracy.
There is not much Syria can do, however, if the U.S. does decide to strike. U.S. officials revealed last week that U.S. forces had tried to rescue U.S. journalist James Foley in a failed operation in Raqqa in July.
"Had there been prior coordination that operation would not have failed," al-Moallem said.
The minister also denounced "in the strongest terms possible" Foley's killing last week by Islamic State militants, while asking: "Has the West ever condemned the massacres by the Islamic State and Nusra against our armed forces or citizens?"
Al-Moallem's news conference came a day after jihadis captured a major military air base in northeastern Syria, eliminating the last government-held outpost in a province otherwise dominated by the Islamic State group. After several failed attempts, Islamic State fighters stormed the Tabqa air base Sunday, killing dozens of troops inside.
Al-Moallem conceded defeat in Tabqa, saying that soldiers were withdrawn to nearby areas, along with their weaponry and warplanes inside the base. Videos posted on militant websites Monday showed celebrations in the nearby town of Tabqa, controlled by the Islamic State group, including fighters honking noisily as they drove in cars carrying the group's black and white flags.
The Islamic State group has established a self-declared caliphate in areas straddling Iraq and Syria's shared borders. The United States began airstrikes against the group in northern Iraq earlier this month, and is now considering similar strikes against the militants in Syria.
Al-Moallem said his government is ready to cooperate with any side, including the U.S., or join any regional or international alliance against the Islamic State group. But he said any military action inside Syria should be coordinated with the government, "which represents Syrian sovereignty."
"Any strike which is not coordinated with the government will be considered as aggression," he said.
Al-Moallem added that airstrikes alone will not be enough to eliminate extremist groups such as the Islamic State group and the Nusra Front. He called for "drying up" their resources including cutting off funding and arming by regional state actors and private donations as well controlling the borders and exchange of intelligence information.
He also welcomed the release Sunday of U.S. freelance reporter Peter Theo Curtus, who had been held hostage for nearly two years by the Nusra Front. He slammed the oil-rich nation of Qatar, which said Sunday that it has "exerted relentless efforts" to win his freedom.
"Don't these efforts constitute proof that they (Qataris) are linked to the Nusra terrorist organization" he asked.
Qatar is a leading supporter of the Syrian rebels fighting to oust Assad and has been involved in mediating past hostage releases. The country's foreign minister said Saturday that Qatar "does not support extremist groups," including the Islamic State group, in any way.