WASHINGTON – The United States has avoided military involvement in Syria’s three-year-civil war thus far. Faced with an Islamist extremist group making gains across the region and the beheading an American journalist, the Obama administration’s resistance may be weakening.
The White House said Friday the president has received no military options beyond those he authorized earlier this month for limited airstrikes in Iraq and military aid to Iraqi and Kurdish forces.
But a top adviser raised the possibility of a broader American military campaign that targets the Islamic State group’s bases in Syria, saying the U.S. would take whatever action is necessary to protect national security.
“We’re not going to be restricted by borders,” said Ben Rhodes, President Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser.
Rhodes spoke a day after Obama’s top military adviser warned the extremists cannot be defeated without “addressing” their sanctuary in Syria.
Many prominent Republicans and some Democrats have called on Obama to hit back harder at the Islamic State.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a prospective 2016 presidential candidate, said in an interview Friday that attacking their supply lines, command and control centers and economic assets inside Syria “is at the crux of the decision” for Obama. The risk of “getting sucked into a new war” is outweighed, he said, by the risk of inaction.
To hit back at the group, Obama has stressed military assistance to Iraq and efforts to create a new, inclusive government in Baghdad that can persuade Sunnis to leave the insurgency.
He also has sought to frame the Islamic State threat in terms that persuade other countries – not just in the Mideast but also in Europe – of the need to create a broad coalition against the extremists.
Lukman Faily, the Iraqi ambassador to Washington, said in an interview this week that Baghdad’s new leadership has been told to expect additional military help once the new government is seated, possibly in early September.
But an Iraqi counteroffensive may yield only temporary gains if the Islamic State retreats to areas of Syria beyond the government’s control.
“The U.S. can’t defeat the Islamic State terrorist army in Iraq if it does not strike its leadership and core base in Syria simultaneously,” said Oubai Shahbandar, a Washington-based senior strategist for the Western-backed opposition Syrian National Coalition group. “A real strategy requires linkage of the military effort in Iraq with Syria,” he said.
Rhodes said the U.S. was “actively considering what’s going to be necessary to deal with that threat.”
Speaking on the Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard, where Obama is on vacation, Rhodes said: “We’ve shown time and again that if there’s a counterterrorism threat, we’ll take direct action against that threat, if necessary.”
The recent execution of journalist James Foley could be seen as a turning point in a long-running battle against the group, whose origins are in an al-Qaida offshoot that U.S. forces faced in Iraq several years ago, he said. Foley’s killing, he added, was “an attack on our country.”