The White House said Monday that President Obama won’t necessarily seek congressional approval for airstrikes in Syria against militants of the Islamic State, while Syria warned the U.S. it would consider any unilateral attack an act of “aggression.”
As Mr. Obama’s advisers debated how to contain the terrorist group whose advances have caught the administration off guard, Obama officials also acknowledged they were caught flat-footed by a joint Egyptian-United Arab Emirates air attack against Islamist forces in Libya. The allies and military partners of the U.S. carried out two attacks in the past week in Libya without notifying Washington or seeking permission.
Mr. Obama, who met Monday with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on his first day back from vacation, “has not made a decision to pursue any military action in Syria,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest. But he said the president doesn’t see the need to seek congressional approval as he did a year ago when he was considering an attack on the regime of Syrian leader Bashar Assad for its use of chemical weapons.
“That was a different situation,” Mr. Earnest said. “These are complicated situations, and they always will be.”
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said Monday that Damascus would not tolerate unilateral action by the U.S. against the extremists, even in the parts of the country that the government no longer controls. He said Syria is “ready to cooperate and coordinate on the regional and international level in the war on terror,” but said any airstrikes should be conducted with the approval of the Syrian government.
That scenario would put Mr. Obama in the awkward position of working with a brutal regime whose downfall he has called for repeatedly. White House aides said Monday that the administration is not interested in helping the Assad regime.
As the threat from the Islamic State grows, the administration also tried Monday to put a new spin on Mr. Obama’s characterization of the group as the “jayvee” team of terrorist groups. The comment in a magazine interview has become Exhibit A for administration critics who accuse Mr. Obama of not taking seriously the threat from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
“It’s important to understand the context,” Mr. Earnest said. “The president was not singling out [the Islamic State]. He was talking about the very different threat that is posed by a range of extremists around the globe.”
Mr. Obama told The New Yorker magazine in January that there is a “distinction” between the reach of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network “versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.”
“The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,” Mr. Obama said at the time.
But just as recently as Friday, White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes suggested that Mr. Obama had been talking about the Islamic State with the “jayvee” reference. He said U.S. officials “are going to need to evaluate which of these groups pose a threat to the United States, which of these groups pose a threat to our personnel in the region and which of these groups are more localized.’
“They [the Islamic State] pose a greater threat today than they did six months ago, and we’re taking it very seriously,” Mr. Rhodes said.
The militants of the Islamic State now control wide swaths of Syria and Iraq, and Mr. Obama has ordered airstrikes against the fighters. Since Aug. 8 the U.S. has carried out nearly 100 airstrikes in Iraq and launched a massive humanitarian mission to save thousands of ethnic minority Yazidis who were besieged by the militants. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Sunday that the Islamic State cannot be defeated without the U.S. going into Syria.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said last week the Islamic State is “an imminent threat to every interest we have,” another characterization that the White House seemed eager Monday to tamp down. Mr. Earnest said the “vast majority” of terrorist groups “don’t have the capability of attacking the West.” But he also acknowledged the administration’s concern that Islamic State militants with Western passports could attack the U.S. or other Western nations.
Mr. Earnest said the president’s strategy for dealing with the Islamic State is: “There are more tools in the toolbox than just brute military force.”
Speaking in Damascus, Mr. al-Moallem appeared acutely aware of how much has changed since last August, when the U.S. was threatening to carry out punitive airstrikes against Mr. Assad’s government in the wake of the chemical attack. Since then, global disapproval has shifted away from Mr. Assad and toward the Islamic extremists who are fighting him and spreading destruction across Syria and Iraq.
Mr. Al-Moallem told reporters his government is ready “to cooperate and coordinate” with any side, including the U.S., or join any regional or international alliance against the Islamic State group. But he said any military action inside Syria should be coordinated with the government, “which represents Syrian sovereignty.”
“Any strike which is not coordinated with the government will be considered as aggression,” he said.
He said Damascus repeatedly has warned of the threat of terrorism and the need to cut off resources and funding, but “no one listened to us.” Syria’s government has long described the rebels fighting to topple Mr. Assad as “terrorists” in a foreign conspiracy.
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also said Western nations that long refused to condemn Mr. Assad’s enemies were now coming to realize the threat posed by the Islamic State group.
The West, he said, “will very soon have to choose what is more important: to change the regime and satisfy personal antipathies with the risk that the situation will crumble, or find pragmatic ways to join efforts against the common threat, which is the same for all of us — terrorism.”
Moscow has been a close ally of Damascus for decades and has provided it with weapons and funding to help support Mr. Assad throughout the current conflict.
Mustafa Alani, the director of the security and defense department at the Gulf Research Center in Geneva, said Syria’s offer aims to take advantage of current events in Iraq and the corresponding shift in American and European attitudes about Mr. Assad and the Islamic State extremists.
“The Syrian government is trying to say they are on the same side as the international community. The old claim from Day 1 that the Syrians have tried to make is that they are fighting pure terrorism. There’s no revolution, no rebels, no opposition,” Mr. Alani said.
“I don’t see this sort of call being acceptable, especially on the regional level,” he added. “The Americans might find themselves forced to cooperate under the table with the Syrians. But I don’t think Arab countries will accept Syria as a member of the club fighting the Islamic State.”
In Libya, two airstrikes targeting Islamist militia positions in the capital of Tripoli killed 15 fighters and wounded 30 on Saturday. Egypt and the United Arab Emirates were behind the attacks, the second in a week.
Islamist militias in Libya have gained power since the 2011 ouster of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Their rise also came as part of a backlash by Islamist factions after losing their power in parliament following June elections and in the face of a campaign by a renegade military general against extremist Islamic militias in Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city.
The New York Times reported that Obama administration officials had no advance warning about the airstrikes and are concerned that the attacks could worsen the Libyan conflict, which has developed into a proxy war between the Islamist movement and states such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.