White House aides insisted Wednesday that President Obama has a goal of defeating the Islamic State militant group and accused Republican critics of playing politics with national security, as Mr. Obama passed another day weighing airstrikes in Syria against Islamist terrorists.
With lawmakers of both parties increasingly calling on the president to outline a coherent plan for combatting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, White House press secretary Josh Earnest blasted Republicans “who are looking to capitalize politically on this situation.”
“Some Republicans want to say that the president is not doing enough to describe what he’s thinking, and there’s some Republicans who say the president has described too much of what he’s thinking,” Mr. Earnest said. “That’s why we’re not focused on the politics. The president is focused on putting in place a strategy that can successfully defend the interests of the United States of America.”
But exactly what the president is thinking was no clearer Wednesday, with the time frame growing shorter for a decision on expanding airstrikes into Syria against the extremists who beheaded a U.S. journalist last week and are holding other Americans hostage. Mr. Obama is heading out of town Friday for a Democratic fundraiser in Rhode Island, and following the Labor Day weekend, he will travel to Europe for a NATO summit.
Mr. Obama has described the Islamic State as a “cancer” that must be rooted out, a characterization that Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, said Wednesday amounted to “more of a slogan than a strategy.” To date, the U.S. has carried out 101 bombings against Islamic State targets in northern Iraq, including three more on Wednesday.
White House aides have been saying since last Friday that Mr. Obama is considering airstrikes in Syria, likely without seeking congressional approval. The Syrian government has said Damascus would consider any airstrikes without its approval as an act of aggression.
Fresh reports of atrocities emerged Wednesday from Syria, where fighters of the Islamic State are battling the regime of Bashar Assad in a 3-year-old civil war that has allowed the terrorist group to flourish. A United Nations report accused Syria for the first time of using chemical weapons — on eight occasions in April, delivered in barrel bombs of chlorine.
The report by the independent Commission of Inquiry also said Islamic State militants were carrying out mock crucifixions, public executions, amputations and the beheading of children in parts of Syria.
The Islamic State is also recruiting children as young as 10, with teens used in active combat and suicide-bombing missions, the report said.
“This is a continuation — and a geographic expansion — of the widespread and systematic attack on the civilian population,” the report stated.
When Mr. Obama ordered airstrikes against the militants on Aug. 8, he said his main goals were to protect U.S. personnel in Iraq and to prevent the potential genocide of ethnic minorities who were besieged by Islamic State fighters. Since then, concern also has risen about westerners who have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join the terrorist group and could be ready to carry out terrorist attacks against the West.
U.S. counterterrorism officials are working with Interpol and other governments to try to track the movements of these so-called “foreign fighters,” such as American Douglas McArthur McCain, killed in Syria while fighting for the Islamic State.
“There are thousands of foreign fighters from up to 50 countries who have traveled to Syria to take up arms alongside [the Islamic State],” Mr. Earnest said. “We are very concerned about the risk that those individuals pose to the 50 countries from which they traveled. In many cases, these are individuals that have Western passports. These are individuals who have been radicalized. These are individual who received some military training. And they’ve demonstrated, as Mr. McCain did, a willingness to die for their cause.”