President Obama acknowledged Thursday he doesn’t have a plan for defeating Islamist militants in Syria and backed away from imminent military action, while he also downplayed reports of a new Russian invasion in Ukraine.
“We don’t have a strategy yet,” Mr. Obama said of his plans for defeating the Islamic State in Syria. “We need to make sure that we’ve got clear plans. As our strategy develops, we will consult with Congress.”
After a week of speculation that he was about to expand U.S. airstrikes against the terrorist group — also known by the acronyms ISIL and ISIS — from its positions in Iraq to those in Syria, the president said he has ordered his military advisers to give him “a range of options.”
But Mr. Obama tried to tamp down the suggestion that his decision was imminent, saying “folks are getting a little further ahead of where we’re at than we currently are.”
“We need to make sure that we’ve got clear plans, that we’re developing them,” Mr. Obama said at a White House news conference. “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.”
Russia ‘not listening’
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In the other military crisis facing the president, Mr. Obama took a noticeably low-key approach to the news that Russian soldiers in tanks and armored personnel carriers captured a key town in Ukraine on Thursday, opening a new front in the six-month-old war and drawing fresh international condemnation at Moscow’s increasingly direct involvement in the fighting.
“I consider the actions we’ve seen in the last week a continuation of what we’ve seen for months now,” Mr. Obama said.
That attitude contrasted sharply with comments from Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who said Russia “is not listening” to the international outcry, including the increasingly broad economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. and the European Union. She said in the past 48 hours, “Russia’s actions have spoken volumes.”
“Russia has to stop lying and has to stop fueling this conflict,” she said. “We see Russia’s actions for what they are: a deliberate effort to support, and now fight alongside, illegal separatists in another sovereign country.”
The White House announced Thursday night that Mr. Obama will host President Petro Poroshenko in Washington on Sept. 18.
But Moscow dismissed the accusations, describing the fighters in Ukraine as “Russian volunteers.” The Kremlin has repeatedly denied arming and supporting the separatists, who have been fighting Ukrainian troops for four months in the gravest crisis between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War.
Some Republican lawmakers said Russia’s actions demonstrate why the Obama administration should send arms to the Ukrainian government.
“The United States and our European allies should immediately begin providing intelligence and defensive weapons to Ukraine, including anti-armor systems,” said Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina in a joint statement.
“We should also impose real sectoral sanctions on Russia — not the half-measures taken to date, but full sanctions on Russia’s defense, financial, energy and other sectors,” the two said, adding that it was “a moment to speak and act with clarity.”
‘Dark and dangerous’
“A sovereign nation in the heart of Europe is being invaded by its larger neighbor,” they said. “This runs completely contrary to the civilized world that America and our partners have sought to build since World War II. If we will not or cannot defend our own values now, as well as friends who share them, the future will be dark and dangerous indeed, not just for Ukraine, but for us too.”
Mr. Poroshenko called an emergency security meeting to defend against what he called a “de facto” Russian invasion after pro-Moscow separatists gained ground in intensified fighting.
Mr. Poroshenko also canceled a state visit to Turkey to coordinate Ukraine’s military response to what he said was a “sharp deterioration” of events in rebel-held territory.
A NATO military officer said that “well over 1,000” Russian troops had poured into Ukraine and have been in direct contact with Ukrainian soldiers, resulting in casualties.
The action prompted an emergency meeting Thursday of the U.N. Security Council.
Invasion a ‘fait accompli’
The escalation of hostilities comes as Mr. Obama and other NATO members are preparing to consider a buildup of coalition troops in Eastern Europe to confront Russia’s move into Ukraine. Before attending the annual NATO summit in Wales, Mr. Obama will travel next week to Estonia — another former Soviet Republic bordering on Russia but, unlike Ukraine, a NATO member — to reinforce NATO’s commitment to protecting its member states.
After speaking with German Chancellor Angela Merkel Thursday, Mr. Obama said they agreed “that Russia is responsible for the violence in eastern Ukraine.” He said sanctions against Russia are working, although he added that he would consider ways “to deepen or expand the scope” of the penalties.
France and Germany threatened Russian President Vladimir Putin with tougher sanctions after the pro-Russia insurgents widened their attacks, taking several towns outside their strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk, including near the Sea of Azov.
That opened a new front and a seaborne supply channel for the rebels, said Anton Herashchenko, an adviser to Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov.
“The invasion by Putin of the regular Russian army is a fait accompli,” Mr. Herashchenko said on his Facebook page.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Lithuania, a former Soviet republic now in the European Union, said it “strongly condemns the invasion of Ukrainian territory by the Russian Federation military forces, which has obviously begun.”
The violence surged a day after Mr. Putin and Mr. Poroshenko met in Minsk, Belarus. Mr. Putin had hailed the talks as a step toward peace, though he said cease-fire terms weren’t discussed because Russia isn’t a party to the conflict.
Latest Islamic State massacre
Mr. Obama held a meeting of his national security team Thursday evening after he ordered surveillance flights earlier in the week to locate potential targets in Syria against the group that beheaded an American journalist and is holding other Americans hostage.
Mr. Obama said his immediate focus is protecting American personnel in Iraq rather than going after the militants in Syria. The Islamic State controls a wide swath of territory straddling the two countries’ border.
“My priority at this point is to make sure that the gains that ISIL made in Iraq are rolled back and that Iraq has the opportunity to govern itself effectively and secure itself,” Mr. Obama said.
The Islamic State group has killed more than 160 Syrian government troops seized in recent fighting, posting pictures of terrified young conscripts stripped down to their underwear before meeting their deaths in the arid Syrian countryside.
The images of the slayings that emerged Thursday were of the latest massacre attributed to the extremist group, which has terrorized rivals and civilians alike with widely publicized brutality in Syria and Iraq as it seeks to expand a proto-state it has carved out.
In southern Syria, meanwhile, gunmen detained 43 U.N. peacekeepers during fighting on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, the United Nations said. It added that another 81 peacekeepers were trapped in the area by heavy clashes between rebels and Syrian troops.
The mass killing of Syrian soldiers is part of a stepped-up campaign by Islamic State militants targeting President Bashar Assad’s forces. Until recently, the group had been focused on eliminating rivals among the rebels fighting to topple him, systematically routing Western-backed opposition fighters and other Islamic factions from towns and villages in northern and eastern Syria as it expands.
Assad/Islamic State choice
While the Islamic State has been gaining strength for four years, and the administration has received warnings about it going back more than a year, Mr. Obama said of the danger expanding “if we don’t nip this [in] the bud.” He said the U.S. and its partners must build a regional strategy for defeating the group.
“It’s going to require us to stabilize Syria in some fashion,” he said. “The suggestion seems to have been that, you know, we’re about to go full-scale on an elaborate strategy for defeating ISIL. And the suggestion, I guess, has been that we’ll start moving forward imminently, and, somehow, Congress, still out of town, is going to be left in the dark. That’s not what’s going to happen.”
Mr. Obama said he still cannot envision a government in Damascus run by Mr. Assad, although he sounded less optimistic about his ouster.
“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,” Mr. Obama said.
“We will continue to support a moderate opposition inside of Syria, in part because we have to give people inside of Syria a choice other than ISIL or Assad,” he said.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.