President Barack Obama indicated there are no immediate U.S. plans to conduct airstrikes against Islamic State havens inside Syria and said he hasn’t set a strategy for confronting the group outside Iraq.
“We don’t have a strategy yet,” Obama said at the White House when asked whether he would need congressional approval to strike targets in Syria. “There’s no point in me asking for action on the part of Congress before I know exactly what it is that is going to be required for us to get the job done.”
Obama said the U.S. will keep hitting the Islamic State positions in northern Iraq and that his “core priority” is protecting U.S. personnel there and preventing the extremists from overrunning that country.
Any expansion of the military campaign against Islamic State, a militant group fighting in Iraq and Syria, will require action by other governments in the region, he said. Without naming any country, he warned Middle Eastern allies to “stop being ambivalent about these extremist groups.”
The radical Sunni group, with money from oil fields it controls in Syria and Iraq, has managed to attract recruits and wrest control of large areas that stretch from northern Syria to the border with Iraq in the east. The threat from the Islamic State to the Shiite-dominated government in Iraq has drawn the U.S. military back into the country.
Obama said Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to the region to “continue to build the coalition that’s needed” to expand the fight against Islamic state. In the meantime, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will work with the Joint Chiefs of Staff to develop military options, he said.
“The options that I’m asking for from the joint chiefs focuses primarily on making sure that ISIL is not overrunning Iraq,” he said.
Obama spoke before convening his national security council, which includes Kerry and Hagel, on dealing with the threat from Islamic State.
Senate Republicans, led by Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, have pushed Obama for a military strategy to combat Islamic State. McConnell today called on Obama to quickly decide on a course of action and consult with Congress on it.
“If the president is prepared to engage Congress with a strategic plan to protect the U.S. and our allies from ISIL, I believe he will have significant congressional support,” McConnell said in an e-mailed statement.
Obama said he’d “consult” with Congress about a strategy for the region, stopping short of saying he’d wait for congressional approval for airstrikes or other actions.
Representative Adam Schiff, a California Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Obama should seek congressional authorization for anything besides a rescue or response to an immediate threat.
“If the president has in mind to embark on a broad- scale military or air campaign in Syria, I think he will really need to come to Congress and seek our authorization,” Schiff said in an interview on CNN.
While U.S. bombing runs against Islamic State positions in Iraq have degraded the group’s military capabilities, defeating them in the long term requires a regional strategy, Obama said today at the White House. “We’re not going to do that alone.”
Obama today repeated his call for the quick formation of a new Iraqi government under new Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, saying that’s an essential step in stabilizing the country.
The U.S. has carried out more than 100 airstrikes against IS positions in Iraq since Obama authorized them and the campaign began Aug. 8. That has helped roll back some of the Islamic State advances.
Kurdish and Iraqi fighters recaptured two oil fields and were working to retake the town of Zummar in northern Iraq, Hisham al-Brefkani, head of the Nineveh provincial council energy committee, said today by phone. Kurdish forces, with the help of U.S. airstrikes, earlier this month helped retake the Mosul dam from extremists who the U.S. had warned could deluge the U.S. embassy and personnel if they breached the dam.
Obama has been urged by some lawmakers in the U.S. to expand that to Syria, where the U.S. is supporting some of the rebel groups trying to oust President Bashar al-Assad.
Islamic State fighters captured Raqqah, about 300 kilometers northeast of the Syrian capital of Damascus, from other rebel groups earlier this year. This weekend, the group completed its takeover of the province from the government when it seized the Tabaqa military airport.
The U.S. would prefer to tackle the Islamic State without helping the Assad regime, though that may prove difficult, according to Michael Desch, professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame.
“This is a circle that can’t be squared,” Desch said by e-mail. “In both Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and now Assad’s Syria we tried to overthrow brutal dictators only to find that their replacements were even worse.” Islamic State “is far more of a threat than Assad and if attacking the former bolsters the latter, so be it.”
Obama will be among the heads of state who travel to Cardiff, Wales, next week for a North Atlantic Treaty Organization meeting. While the official agenda focuses on withdrawal from Afghanistan, the IS threat will be discussed both formally and informally.
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