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CORRECTIONS & CLARIFICATIONS: An earlier version of this story incorrectly used a photo of an experimental aircraft. That image has since been removed.

KABUL — U.S. surveillance flights over Syria have started with President Obama's go-ahead, a step that will provide potential targets if airstrikes against Islamic State militants are approved.

The Associated Press reported Tuesday that an unnamed U.S. official said the flights had begun. USA TODAY reported Monday that the flights will provide information on potential targets for strikes in Syria if Obama approves.

The White House and Pentagon would not discuss details of intelligence operations in Syria but made clear the United States is not cooperating with the country's regime.

"As a matter of U.S. policy, we have not recognized" President Bashar Assad as the leader in Syria, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said aboard Air Force One as the president traveled to Charlotte to give a speech to a veterans group. "There are no plans to change that policy, and there are no plans to coordinate with the Assad regime."

Earnest wouldn't discuss whether Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel presented military options on Syria when he met with the president at the White House late Monday.

Rear Adm. John Kirby, Hagel's spokesman, would not confirm that any surveillance flights had taken place over Syria.

The initiative to plan intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions over Syria was contained in the execution order that allowed for the airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq, according to a Defense Department official speaking on condition of anonymity because the details were not authorized to be released publicly.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, would not confirm or deny the reports but did say the military wants a clearer picture of the jihadist militants operating in Syria.

Dempsey said the United States has a better view of the militants in Iraq, where the U.S. military flies more than 50 surveillance and reconnaissance missions per day in addition to conducting airstrikes.

The militants, who call themselves the Islamic State, operate in Iraq and Syria, and it would be difficult to defeat the threat without dealing with militants on both sides of the porous border between the two countries.

Obama has not decided which steps to take in Syria. Col. Ed Thomas, a Dempsey spokesman, said Monday that Dempsey is working with U.S. Central Command, which oversees troops in the region, to select options "both in Iraq and Syria with a variety of military tools, including airstrikes."

In Iraq, the U.S. military coordinates with Iraqi forces in carrying out airstrikes against the militants. The strikes are limited to protecting U.S. personnel and supporting humanitarian efforts.

The United States would have no such partner in Syria, where the militants are fighting the Assad regime.

Dempsey has said that countering the threat in Syria and Iraq will require a broad coalition aimed at undermining the support the group has among Sunnis in the region.

The Islamic State "will only truly be defeated when it's rejected by the 20 million disenfranchised Sunni that happen to reside between Damascus and Baghdad," Dempsey said recently at the Pentagon. "It requires the application of all of the tools of national power — diplomatic, economic, information, military."

Contributing: Gregory Korte and the Associated Press

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