WASHINGTON — President Obama said Thursday he’s building a “broader regional strategy” against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
But that strategy in Syria is not in place yet, Obama said, and he explicitly tamped down expectations that there would be an imminent military response in Syria, saying news reports had gotten ahead of military assessments.
“Rooting out a cancer like ISIL will not be quick or easy, but I’m confident that we can and we will,” he said. Obama said he would send Secretary of State John Kerry to the region to build a coalition of “strong regional partners.”
“I don’t want to put the cart before the horse. We don’t have a strategy yet,” he said. “The suggestion, I guess, has been that we’ll start moving forward imminently, and somehow Congress, still out of town, is gonna be left in the dark.
Obama said there would be plenty of time for Congress to review the strategy when it gets back from its summer recess on Sept. 8.
“We’re going to cobble together the kind of coalition that we need for a long-term strategy as soon as we are able to fit together the military, political and economic components of that strategy. There will be a military aspect to that,” Obama said. “And it’s going to be important for Congress to know what that is, in part because it may cost some money.”
On Capitol Hill, Republicans said that strategy needs to come quickly.
“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,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader. “But don’t forget, the threat from ISIL is real and it’s growing — and it is time for President Obama to exercise some leadership in launching a response.”
Obama referred to the Islamic State as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which is one of the three ways officials refer to the group.
Obama made a clear distinction between the response to the Islamic State in Iraq, where the United States is trying to encourage a new, more inclusive government to fight the militants, and in Syria, where the United States won’t cooperate with the regime of President Bashar Assad.
In Iraq, Obama has authorized daily air strikes of Islamic State targets. The U.S. Central Command in Tampa Thursday confirmed five more strikes against militants’ vehicles and checkpoints near the Mosul Dam, bringing the total number of air strikes to 106 over three weeks.
Obama’s remarks to reporters Thursday afternoon came before a meeting of his National Security Council in the White House Situation Room.
Obama also ruled out military action in Ukraine, saying economic sanctions are hurting Russia. “It is not in the cards for us to see a military confrontation between Russia and the United States in this region,” he said.
He said there’s no doubt that Russia is responsible for the violence in the former Soviet republic, and would pay a price for that.
“This is not a homegrown indigenous uprising in eastern Ukraine. The separatists are backed, armed and financed by Russia. We’ve seen deep Russian involvement in everything they’ve done,” he said.
Obama travels to Estonia and Wales next week for meetings with NATO allies about Ukraine. He also spoke Thursday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and the two agreed that additional sanctions are necessary, the White House said.
“Russia is already more isolated than at any time since the end of the Cold War. This ongoing Russian incursion into Ukraine will only bring more costs,” he said.