Obama on Syria: ‘We don’t have a strategy yet’

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President Barack Obama played down the prospect of imminent U.S. military action in Syria on Thursday, saying “we don’t have a strategy yet” for degrading the violent militant group seeking to establish a caliphate in the Middle East.

Obama said confronting the Islamic State militants requires a regional strategy with support from other countries in the region. He said it’s time for states in the region to “stop being ambivalent” about the aims of extremist groups like the Islamic State.

“They have no ideology beyond violence and chaos and the slaughter of innocent people,” Obama said, alluding to the group’s announcement last week that it had killed American journalist James Foley. The militants also have threatened to kill other U.S. hostages.

The U.S. already is striking Islamic State targets in Iraq, and officials have said the president is considering similar action in neighboring Syria in the wake of Foley’s death. The militants have moved with ease between the two countries, effectively blurring the border.

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However, the president said Thursday that his top priority remains rolling back the militants’ gains in Iraq, where he has said they pose a threat to U.S. personnel in Erbil and Baghdad. Obama said that if he were to expand that military mission, he would consult with members of Congress, who are due to return to Washington in early September.

“The suggestion has been that we’ll start moving forward imminently and somehow Congress, still out of town, will be left in the dark,” Obama said. “That’s not what’s going to happen.”

However, the president did not commit to seeking a vote from Congress if he were to decide to proceed with military action. One year ago, Obama was on the verge of taking strikes against the Syrian government it retaliation for its use of chemical weapons, but abruptly shifted course and decided to seek congressional approval.

The surprise move threw his policy into chaos. Congress balked at Obama’s request for a vote, contributing to his decision to ultimately scrap the strikes.

He also is ruling out the possibility that the U.S. will take military action to address growing violence in Ukraine.

Obama says the U.S. will stand firm with its allies to address the conflict in Ukraine, where the U.S. says Russia is backing pro-Russian separatists. But Obama says a military confrontation between the U.S. and Russia in the region, quote, “is not in the cards.”

But Obama is pointing to the NATO alliance as a deterrent for Russia. He says although Ukraine isn’t part of NATO, other nearby nations are. He says the U.S. takes its commitment to defend NATO allies “very seriously.” Obama will attend a NATO summit in Wales next week.

Obama spoke amid an escalation of violence in eastern Ukraine and fresh signs of Russia’s involvement.

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