President Obama said Thursday that he has yet to develop a strategy for combating the threat from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant that could include expanding the current air campaign into Syria.
"We don't have a strategy yet on a response to ISIS," Obama said, using another acronym for ISIL. Obama said he had directed Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to give him a set of options, but there were no immediate plans to go beyond the current "limited" air campaign in Iraq.
For weeks, Republican critics led by Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, have called for an expanded air campaign and charged that Obama lacked a strategy for confronting ISIL.
Obama also said he saw no role for the U.S. military in confronting Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine, where Russian troops and tanks reportedly were pouring across the border.
Obama said he was consulting with allies on toughening economic sanctions on Russia, but "it's not in the cards for us to see a military confrontation between the United States and Russia. A military solution to this problem is not going to be forthcoming."
"My expectation is that we will take additional steps" with allies on economic sanctions against Russia, Obama said.
Obama spoke at a late-afternoon White House news conference. To play down expectations that he would make a dramatic announcement on Iraq or Ukraine, Obama began by citing a report showing an improving U.S. economy.
Obama said he was concerned about rumors that "we're about to go full scale on an elaborate strategy for the defeat of ISIL. That's not going to happen," he said.
On Iraq, Obama said "I don't want to put the cart before the horse" on a long-term strategy for defeating ISIL that could entail going after the terrorist group's strongholds in Syria.
The strategy was dependent upon new Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi forming a unified government able to mount a concerted effort against ISIL that the U.S. would support, Obama said. The strategy was also dependent upon attempting to "cobble together" a coalition of regional partners willing to join in an expanded campaign against ISIL, Obama said.
"The states in the region have to stop being ambivalent about these extremist groups," Obama said in a reference to allegations that ISIL and other terror groups involved in Syria's civil war have drawn support from the Gulf states and others.
Obama said he would be sending Secretary of State John Kerry to the region in the coming weeks to talk to allies about a partnered campaign against ISIL.
"We need to make sure that we've got clear plans, that we're developing them," Obama said.
Obama repeated that U.S. efforts against ISIL would not involve U.S. ground forces -- the so-called "boots on the ground" scenario. The U.S. military "can rout ISIS (ISIL) on the ground," Obama said, but "when we leave, ISIS comes back again."
Obama said "the core priority right now" of the U.S. air campaign in Iraq was to protect U.S. personnel and facilities, and to provide humanitarian aid.
Navy and Air Force warplanes have now carried out more than 101 bombing missions in northern Iraq against the extremists of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), according to the U.S. Central Command.
Airstrikes Wednesday destroyed an ISIL Humvee, a supply truck, three armored vehicles, and severely damaged an ISIL building, CentCom said. The latest airstrikes brought the total number of bombing missions in northern Iraq to 101 since the attacks began on Aug. 8, CentCom said.
An unofficial count, based on CentCom reports, showed that since Aug. 8 U.S. airstrikes had destroyed at least 38 ISIL armed vehicles, 16 armored personnel carriers, 26 Humvees, 16 checkpoints or positions and at least one Mine Resistant-Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle.
At a Pentagon briefing earlier this month, Army Lt. Army Lt. Gen. William C. Mayville, the Pentagon's operations chief, said that the airstrikes were being carried out by Navy F/A-18 Super Hornets, flying off the carrier George H.W. Bush in the Persian Gulf, and by Air Force F-15s, F-16s and MQ-1 Predator remotely piloted aircraft.
The Defense Department and CentCom have since stopped identifying the aircraft because of the political sensitivities of the states in the region where the Air Force planes are based.
The U.S. has the use of air bases in five states in the region – Al Udeid air base in Qatar, Ali al Salem airbase in Kuwait, Isa air base in Bahrain, Al Dhafra air base in the United Arab Emirates, and Incirlik air base in Turkey. Last December, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited Qatar to sign a 10-year lease extension for the use of Al Udeid.
Al Udeid is home to the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing and the more than 90 combat and support aircraft. C-17 Globemasters and C-130 aircraft from the 379th flying out of Al Udeid earlier this month airdropped relief supplies to members of the Yazidi sect trapped in the Sinjar Mountains in northern Iraq, according to a release from the 379th.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at email@example.com