The United States is open to the possibility of military action against Islamist militants in Syria, a top Obama Administration official said Friday, warning that the U.S. will “do what is necessary to protect Americans.”
“We’ve made very clear time and again that if you come after Americans, we’re going to come after you wherever you are,” Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters. “And that’s what’s going to guide our planning in the days to come.”
President Barack Obama has resisted pressure from both outside and inside his administration to take a more aggressive approach in Syria, where a bloody civil war has claimed 191,000 lives in recent years, according to a new United Nations estimate Friday. But the emergence of the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria ISIS, which released a graphic video last week depicting the beheading of American journalist James Foley, has raised the stakes and has seemingly made American officials, already engaged in targeted military action in Iraq, more willing to consider doing so on the other side of the border.
Whether President Obama would actually authorize a new strategy remained unclear and aides said he has not yet been presented with recommendations. The president has long expressed skepticism that more assertive action by the United States, including arming Syrian rebels as urged in 2011 by Hillary Rodham Clinton, then the secretary of state, would change the course of the civil war there. But he sent out Ben Rhodes on Friday to publicly hint at the possibility a day after the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said ISIS could not be defeated without going after it in Syria.
“Well, we certainly agree that any strategy to deal with the ISIS organization has to deal with both sides of the border, Iraq and Syria,” Rhodes said. “The strategy that we are already undertaking does address that in the sense that we are providing training and equipping and assistance to the Iraqi security forces and Kurdish security forces who are fighting them on the ground in Iraq.
“We are also providing support and military assistance to the moderate Syrian opposition,” he added. “What we would like to see is those efforts squeeze the space where ISIS operates.”
Rhodes cautioned that no decisions have been made.
“I don’t want to get ahead of decisions the President hasn’t been presented with, specific military options outside of those carrying out the current missions in Iraq,” he said. “But we would certainly look at what is necessary in the long term to make sure we’re protecting Americans.”
In the UK, Ministers agreed to step up Britain’s involvement in the fight against Isis by sending military trainers to Baghdad to help the Iraqi security forces.
Guidance to UK police is to be “refreshed” to remind them of their powers to arrest those who incite or support terrorism by issuing leaflets backing Isis. Police will be told that flying flags that “incite or encourage support for the Islamic State” are illegal, a government source said.
The prime minister, who watched the video of the beheading after he returned to Downing Street, said: “Let me condemn completely the barbaric and brutal act that has taken place. And let’s be clear what that act is: it is an act of murder. And murder without any act of justification. Now we have not identified the individual responsible on the video. But from what we’ve seen it looks increasingly likely it is a British citizen. Now this is deeply shocking.”
The intelligence agencies, working hard to identify the Briton in the video, will focus on British-born Isis volunteers. An estimated 400 to 500 UK fighters are in Syria and Iraq with Isis. It is believed that up to 250 have returned to Britain.
Cameron said: “We know far too many British citizens have travelled to Iraq and travelled to Syria to take part in extremism and violence. And what we must do is to redouble all our efforts to stop people going, to take away the passports of people contemplating travel, to arrest and prosecute those that take part in extremism and violence, to take extremist material off the internet, and do everything we can to keep people safe. And that is what this government will do.”
Government sources said officials were working hard with social media sites to take down the video of the beheading. They said Cameron had watched it to understand the threat. The source said Cameron believes Britain and the US will face a lengthy battle against Isis. He said: “Overall, this is going to require a tough, patient, resolute response. It is going to take time. The measures we have got have enabled us to do things.”