The US Department of Defense is weighing a new strategy that would authorize the military to expand its global drone strike program to the Philippines, according to a new report.
The drone strikes would be part of an official operation against Daesh (ISIL) targets in the Southeast Asian country, NBC News reported Monday, citing two US military officials.
According to the unnamed sources, the operation might be named as early as Tuesday, helping it to get more funding.
A bloody standoff between government forces and extremist militants who have pledged allegiance to Daesh has killed around 700 people in the southern Philippine city of Marawi over the past two months.
The militants, waving the black Daesh flag, have occupied parts of the city since May 23, prompting President Rodrigo Duterte to declare martial law in the entire southern region of Mindanao.
In June, a small group of US special forces joined the battle. The Philippines military said in a statement back then that the group, dubbed the Joint Special Operations Task Force Trident, would only provide technical assistance.
If approved, the drone strikes put the Philippines in the same group with Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and Libya, where the US has carried out thousands of such raids since the September 11, 2001 terror attacks.
The US had deployed some 1,200 of its special forces to Mindanao on an advisory role in 2002 before scrapping the program and calling most of them back in 2015.
Last year, Duterte urged Washington to withdraw the remaining troops in reaction to then-President Barack Obama’s rebuke of Manila’s war on drugs over human rights concerns.
The ties between the two sides started to warm up under Obama’s successor Donald Trump, who has invited Duterte to the White House.
Tillerson meets Duterte
The news of the possible air campaign coincided with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s tour of the region, which included a stop in Manila to attend his first ministerial meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN.
The top US diplomat met with Duterte on Monday, where the firebrand Philippine president took a U-turn from his previous anti-Washington stances and called himself a “humble friend” of the Trump White House.
Tillerson reassured Duterte that his country would support him in the terror fight by training Philippine troops and providing them with “intelligence capabilities.”
The state secretary said there was “no conflict” between helping Manila with the fight and the “human rights concerns we have with respect to how they carry out their counter-narcotics activities.”
Tillerson left the Philippines later in the day to make a five-hour stop in Thailand on Tuesday, where he was expected to discuss soured ties following a military coup in 2014. The trip marks the highest level visit by a US official ever since.