President Barack Obama admitted Thursday he did not yet have a strategy to combat the Islamic State in Syria, quelling speculation he would unleash imminent US military strikes against the radical Sunni fighters.
The president stressed though that he was developing a broad and comprehensive plan which would involve military, diplomatic and regional efforts designed to defeat IS for good, not just in the short term.
Obama also said that Washington did not need to choose to side with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to combat the Islamic State, which exploited a power vacuum in the middle of Syria`s vicious civil war and last week brutally executed US journalist James Foley.
"We don`t have a strategy yet," Obama said, before huddling with his top national security advisors in the White House Situation Room to plot how to respond to IS.
"I think what I`ve seen in some of the news reports suggests that folks are getting a little further ahead of where we are at than we currently are."
The president announced he would dispatch Secretary of State John Kerry to the Middle East to begin building a comprehensive regional anti-IS effort with partners in the region, especially among those who adhere to the Sunni strain of Islam.
Obama, who authorized air strikes on the IS in Iraq, said there would be a military component to targeting the jihadists, but said that force could only halt their advance in the short term and that their permanent eradication depended on regional political and diplomatic action.
"It`s going to require us to stabilize Syria in some fashion, (that) means we (have) got to get moderate Sunnis who are able to govern."Obama also argued that the incoming government in Baghdad, which Washington hopes will be less sectarian than that of outgoing Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, will be vital to reversing rapid IS gains in Iraq and neighboring Syria.
He also addressed calls in some sectors of the US foreign policy community for Washington to swallow hard and agree to work alongside Assad`s regime as the lesser of two evils compared to IS.
"I don`t think there`s a situation where we have to choose between Assad or the kinds of people who carry on the incredible violence that we`ve been seeing there," he said.
Obama said Assad had lost legitimacy through acts such as dropping barrel bombs on innocent families and killing tens of thousands of people, and argued Assad forces did not even have the capability to reach into areas where IS was dominant.
The US president also declined to commit to asking Congress for authorization to expand US air strikes currently taking place in Iraq against IS to Syria, though promised to consult lawmakers on any action he takes.
A year ago, Obama abandoned plans to strike Syria after accusing Assad of violating a US "red line" by using chemical weapons, after it became clear lawmakers did not support the action.
"I don`t want to put the cart before the horse," Obama said.
"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`s admission that his government did not so far have a strategy to take on IS in Syria is likely to ignite fresh criticism of his leadership from Republicans who brand his foreign policy as feckless.
Though he promised a long-term and comprehensive plan, Obama`s opponents are certain to seize on the phrase to charge that his government was caught unawares by the Islamic State`s brutal and lightning surge in Iraq.
White House press spokesman Josh Earnest immediately wrote a series of Tweets in an apparent attempt at damage control.
"In his remarks today, (Obama) was explicit -- as he has been in the past -- about the comprehensive strategy we`ll use to confront ISIL (IS) threat."
Expectations of robust US military action have multiplied since the video emerged of Foley`s killing last week.
There have also been sharp warnings -- even from members of his own administration -- of US vengeance and the potential threat to the United States and its allies from potential IS terror attacks.
But Obama, showing trademark caution at the flexing of direct US military power, styled his deliberations as giving the United States the best long-term chance to downgrade the danger from IS, also known as ISIL.
He drew a distinction between his actions in ordering air raids in Iraq against IS, and potential moves in Syria, saying he had moved fast to protect US diplomatic and other installations.
He promised a broader strategy going forward "with an international coalition and partners to systematically degrade (IS`s) capacity to engage in the terrible violence and disruptions that they`ve been engaging in, not just in Syria, not just in Iraq, but potentially elsewhere if we don`t nip this (in) the bud."