Official: Obama weighing options to go after ISIS in Syria
WASHINGTON (CNN) — President Barack Obama flatly stated Tuesday the United States won’t forget the gruesome killing of American journalist James Foley and promised “justice will be done.”
And now, apparently, he has some options to pursue such justice — going after ISIS not just for beheading Foley, but for its campaign of terror around the region.
The U.S. Defense Department has given Obama “a range of planning options” to go after the Islamist terror group, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Tuesday. That includes continuing to strike the group, as U.S. forces have done for weeks, inside Iraq as well as taking the fight into Syria.
“We’re having a constant conversation inside the administration about what options could be necessary to go after ISIS whether it’s in Syria, Iraq or wherever they train or operate,” the spokeswoman said.
Harf added that the President hasn’t made any decisions on what to do. But, even if he hasn’t offered specifics, he hasn’t backed down in his rhetoric.
Speaking at an American Legion event Tuesday about Foley’s killing — which ISIS videotaped then put online as it threatened more such killings targeting Americans — Obama said that, while his government will be patient, it also won’t hesitate to use if vast reach to bring “justice” by going “after those who harm Americans” and others.
“We’ll continue to take direct action where needed to protect our people and to defend our homeland,” the President said in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“And rooting out a cancer like (ISIS) won’t be easy and it won’t be quick. But tyrants and murderers before them should recognize that kind of hateful vision ultimately is no match for the strength and hopes of people who stand together for the security and dignity and freedom that is the birth right of every human being.”
Official: U.S. won’t coordinate with al-Assad
While U.S. airstrikes have been targeting ISIS for weeks in Iraq, going after them in Syria is another matter.
If that’s what happens, it would mean Obama would be on the same side as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — the same man who U.S. officials have been railing at for years, going so far as to work closely with the “moderate opposition” forces trying to unseat him the past three years.
Yet these “moderate” forces aren’t alone in trying to topple al-Assad. They’ve been joined by — and sometimes fight against — ISIS and other groups such as al-Nusra Front, that Washington calls terrorist organizations.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said al-Assad’s regime was ready to accept support from the United States and others working under the U.N. umbrella to fight “terrorists” — a reference to ISIS. But Moallem warned against any unilateral action or strikes in Syrian territory without permission.
Harf said Tuesday, though, that U.S. officials won’t be suddenly befriending or working with their counterparts in Syria. Quite the contrary, she said, stressing “we are not going to be coordinating with the Assad regime, period.”
“The answer to ISIS is not the Assad regime,” the State Department spokeswoman said. “They have allowed them to grow…. And we are not going to be working with them to root out this threat.”
In fact, Harf said Obama is asking Congress to fund a “training and equip mission” for the “moderate opposition in Syria.” This could be significant, as up until now the U.S. government has resisted giving arms or military equipment directly to anyone in the war-torn country who wants to defeat al-Assad — in part due to fears such weaponry could end up in the wrong hands, including that of ISIS.
“It is always a challenge that we’re dealing with,” Harf said. “We believe here, though, that we need to keep supporting the moderate opposition in Syria.”
Obama OK’s reconnaissance flights over Syria
The United States has already been gathering intelligence on the locations of ISIS leadership and troops in Syria, two U.S. officials told CNN on Friday.
And they could now have another tool in this effort at their disposal — reconnaissance flights over Syria, which Obama has authorized, according to a U.S. official.
“Satellites can provide you good visibility, but you always want closer eyes on target if you can,” said Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby on Monday, before Obama’s decision was made public.
U.S. reconnaissance assets are likely to be looking for a variety of sites including “equipment parks, training centers, encampments, the sorts of facilities and buildings where ISIS perhaps has its governing facilities,” said retired Col. Peter Mansoor, an ex-aide to former CIA Director Gen. David Petraeus.
The U.S. military began carrying out airstrikes against ISIS positions in Iraq this month, helping Kurdish and Iraqi forces halt the Islamic extremists’ murderous advance. It has also sent military advisers to Iraq.
But it’s not like ISIS fighters can be counted on to stay in Iraq, since the area it controls straddles the Iraq-Syria border.
Both Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel left open the possibility of strikes against ISIS in Syria in comments last week.
“Can they be defeated without addressing that part of their organization which resides in Syria? The answer is no,” Dempsey said. “That will have to be addressed on both sides of what is essentially at this point a nonexistent border.”
But the lack of action so far is prompting criticism from those who want more to be done, like the hawkish Republican Senator Lindsey Graham.
“The White House is trying to minimize the threat we face in order to justify not changing a failed strategy,” he said Monday.
‘The lesser of two evils’
Attacking ISIS could have some undesired side effects in the region for the United States, said CNN National Security Analyst Peter Bergen.
“If you intervene, you may be helping Iran and Hezbollah and (al-Assad’s) regime,” he said.
“This is the very definition of choosing between the lesser of two evils,” said CNN White House Correspondent Jim Acosta.
Airstrikes would be effective in blocking the momentum of armed forces on the offensive, Mansoor said.
“It doesn’t take too many people around you getting blown up to make you not want to get out into the open,” he told CNN.
But U.S. officials have said that a lasting solution to the chaos in Iraq and Syria requires a broader approach.
“Secretary Hagel and Chairman Dempsey both said last week that the military solution is not going to be enough,” Kirby said, mentioning the need for diplomatic, political and economic measures.
“The real answer long term is stable governance in Syria and in Iraq to address the needs of people,” he said.
CNN’s Barbara Starr reported from Washington, and Greg Botelho reported and wrote from Atlanta. CNN’s Jethro Mullen contributed to this report.
By Greg Botelho and Barbara Starr