By Steve Holland and Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama said on Thursday the United States has not yet developed a strategy for confronting Islamic State in Syria, an acknowledgement that a decision had not been made on whether to launch air strikes against the militant group.
Obama’s comment during a White House news conference before a meeting of national security advisers about how to proceed against Islamic State drew criticism from Republicans and a clarification from White House spokesman Josh Earnest.
Representative Tom Price, a Georgia Republican, said on Twitter: “President says “we don’t have a strategy yet” to deal with #ISIS. That’s obvious and increasingly unacceptable.”
Earnest said Obama was referring to military options and that Obama has a comprehensive strategy for confronting the group through diplomatic means.
Obama’s decision to begin U.S. surveillance flights over Syria this week prompted speculation that he was on the brink of expanding the fight against Islamic State from Iraq into Syria and criticism from some lawmakers concerned that they had not been properly consulted over possible U.S. actions.
Republicans and Democrats in Congress have called for lawmakers to vote on whether the United States should broaden its action against the Islamic State.
Obama shied away from launching air strikes in Syria a year ago to punish Syrian President Bashir al-Assad for using chemical weapons against his own people, and he has been reluctant to get involved in Syria’s civil war, believing there are few options for the United States.
Public anger over the beheading of American journalist James Foley, however, has led Obama to consider military strikes against Islamic State targets in Syria. So far, the U.S. has limited its actions to the group’s forces in Iraq.
Obama said he has asked Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to prepare options for confronting Islamic State and said Secretary of State John Kerry would travel to the region to help create an anti-Islamic State coalition.
Obama’s strategy for Islamic State is not limited to military action. It includes supporting moderate Sunni rebels in Syria and encouraging a unity government in Baghdad between Shi’ites and Sunnis, who have engaged in sectarian battles.
“My priority at this point is to make sure that the gains that ISIL (Islamic State) made in Iraq are rolled back and that Iraq has the opportunity to govern itself effectively and secure itself,” he said.
Obama said the options he had requested from military planners at the Pentagon focused primarily on making certain that Islamic State is “not overrunning Iraq.”
Congressional concerns over potential U.S. military strikes in Syria have increased.
In a letter to House Speaker John Boehner, Democrats James McGovern of Massachusetts and Barbara Lee of California and Republican Walter Jones of North Carolina asked for Congressional debate and a vote on any authorization to use military force.
Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate, said he thought Obama would have “significant congressional support” if he provided a strategic plan to protect the United States and its allies from the Sunni militants.
Obama promised that he would consult Congress, but unlike a year ago when strikes were considered against Syria, he did not vow to seek specific congressional authorization.
“I don’t want to put the cart before the horse,” he said. He said news reports have suggested he is on the verge of an elaborate strategy for defeating the group without consulting Congress.
“That’s not what’s going to happen,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton and Mark Felsenthal; Editing by Sandra Maler, Eric Walsh, Toni Reinhold)
[Image: President Barack Obama holds a press conference at the White House in Washington, DC, on Aug. 28, 2014. By Saul Loeb for AFP]