Obama now weighing airstrikes in Syria to combat Islamic State
By GREGORY KORTE AND TOM VANDEN BROOK | USA Today (MCT) | Published: August 26, 2014
WASHINGTON — President Obama spent his first day back from August vacation Monday weighing his options against Islamic State militants — options that now include airstrikes in Syria.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, the nation's highest-ranking military officer, is preparing options for the president to address militants "both in Iraq and Syria with a variety of military tools, including airstrikes," a Pentagon spokesman said.
The spokesman, Col. Ed Thomas, said the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff believes the Islamic State "must be pressured both in Iraq and in Syria."
The Pentagon has issued an order to plan for spy plane missions over Syria to support potential attacks against the Islamic State, according to a Defense Department official speaking on condition of anonymity because the news was not authorized to be released publicly.
The initiative to plan intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions over Syria was contained in the execution order that allowed for the airstrikes against IS targets in Iraq, the official said.
It's unclear if those intelligence collection missions have begun.
The United States has launched 96 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in northern and Western Iraq as of Sunday, with most targets near the Mosul Dam. Those strikes have not extended into Syria, where the Assad regime remains hostile and Russia has blocked United Nations approval of military action.
"The president has not made a decision to pursue any military action in Syria," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Monday before Obama met with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel at the White House.
Those military actions are still in the planning stage, and it's up to the Pentagon to come up with those plans, Earnest said. "There are entire wings of that very large building that are dedicated to making sure the president has a range of plans and options that they can present to him if and when necessary," he said.
"Military might is not the only tool in the toolbox," he said. Obama is also pushing for a stronger, more unified Iraqi government to counter the Islamic State.
But that's not an option in Syria, where President Bashar Assad remains embroiled in a civil war against both the IS and the more moderate Free Syrian Army. Earnest acknowledged that a blow against the IS could help keep Assad in power. "There are a lot of cross-pressures in this situation. There's no doubt about it," he said.
Obama also must consider Congress. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who chairs a Senate subcommittee on the region, said he has "reservations" about whether the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, as it is formally known, poses an imminent threat.
"I will always support the president when he takes action to protect American servicemembers and diplomats," Kaine said. "But I am calling for the mission and objectives for this current significant military action against ISIL to be made clear to Congress, the American people, and our men and women in uniform. And Congress should vote up or down on it."
Earnest said Obama would continue to consult leaders on Capitol Hill but stopped short of promising — as he did a year ago with Syria — that he would seek congressional approval before acting.
Dempsey said Sunday that U.S. officials have seen no evidence of "active plotting against the homeland." The White House repeated that assessment Monday but said there was a "significant concern" about individuals with Western passports fighting alongside militants and then "returning to the West to conduct terrorist attacks," Earnest said.
Obama returned from Martha's Vineyard, Mass., on Sunday night after two weeks of vacation interrupted by meetings in Washington a week ago. Earnest dismissed criticism of the president leaving for the golf course immediately after delivering a stern statement on the Islamic State's execution of American journalist James Foley.
"The president's not worried about politics. He's worried about the safety and security of the American people," he said, noting that Obama kept in touch with national security officials and world leaders from his vacation retreat. "Like many other Americans this time of year, the president did enjoy spending some time with his family."
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