WASHINGTON — President Obama confronted two volatile international crises with restraint Thursday as he said he was not close to authorizing airstrikes against Islamic extremists in Syria and played down the latest escalation of Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine.
With tensions rising in Europe and the Middle East, Obama emphasized that a military response would not resolve either situation and pledged to build international coalitions to deal with them.
Despite pressure from within his own government for more assertive action, he tried to avoid inflaming passions as he sought new approaches.
Obama confirmed that he had asked Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel for options for military strikes in Syria to target the Islamic State, which has established a virtual state straddling the border of Iraq and Syria. But at a news conference before meeting with his national-security team, the president said no action in Syria was imminent because he had not even seen military plans.
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“We don’t have a strategy yet,” he said. “I think what I’ve seen in some of the news reports suggests that folks are getting a little further ahead of where we’re at than we currently are.”
His comment instantly drew fire from critics and prompted aides to clarify that he was only talking about what to do in Syria. Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, quickly posted a series of Twitter messages and went on television to say that Obama did, in fact, have a strategy to combat the Islamic State’s gains in Iraq.
Earnest said the strategy included military action, building an inclusive government, supporting Iraq’s armed forces and recruiting regional partners to help.
Obama seemed equally intent on managing expectations about what the U.S. may do in response to reports and evidence that Russia has sent forces into Ukraine. Although he said he expected to impose additional sanctions, he declined to call Russia’s latest moves an invasion, as Ukraine and others have, saying they were “not really a shift” but just “a little more overt” form of long-standing Russian violations of Ukrainian sovereignty.
“I consider the actions that we’ve seen in the last week a continuation of what’s been taking place for months now,” Obama said. “The separatists are backed, trained, armed, financed by Russia. Throughout this process, we’ve seen deep Russian involvement in everything that they’ve done.”
In both cases, Obama took a different tone than his own advisers have in recent days. The nation’s top military officer and the president’s deputy national-security adviser both talked in sharper terms in the past week about the possibility of striking in Syria, while Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations expressed moral outrage on Thursday over Russia’s latest actions in Ukraine.
In a blistering statement to the Security Council just hours before the president spoke, the ambassador, Samantha Power, bluntly accused Russia of lying about its intervention. “The mask is coming off” Russia’s denials, Power said, calling its actions a “threat to all of our peace and security.”
Administration officials have been preparing for another round of sanctions against Russia in conjunction with European allies, but they are unsure whether the president will take them to the next level, affecting broader swaths of Russia’s financial and energy sectors at the risk of harming U.S. and European economic interests.
Some officials have urged going beyond such economic measures and intervening more directly to tilt the odds on the battlefield in favor of Ukraine’s new pro-Western government. Not only do some administration officials want to speed up promises of limited aid to Ukraine’s military, but some are pressing to provide arms and intelligence that would help Ukraine counter the sophisticated equipment that the U.S. and Europe say Russia is providing to separatists, as well as to its own forces now crossing the border.
Officials also are struggling with the question of how far to go in taking on the Islamic State group in Syria, where the president has been deeply reluctant to intervene in a bloody civil war.
Obama has ordered at least one special operations raid in Syria — a failed effort to rescue U.S. hostages held by Islamic State fighters — but it is unclear how willing he would be to authorize more.
Officials are debating whether an air campaign would involve manned jets or just drones, and whether they would target massed forces or specific leaders.
These were questions Obama was not eager to address Thursday. Instead, he noted that even the airstrikes he had authorized in Iraq for the last few weeks were “limited” and said, “Syria is not simply a military issue; it’s also a political issue.”
He acknowledged, however, that Syria had given Islamic State “a safe haven here in ungoverned spaces” and that to roll back the group, “We’re going to have to build a regional strategy.”
He said he was sending Secretary of State John Kerry to the region to assemble a coalition against the group. He also rejected the notion that attacking the Islamic State might help President Bashar Assad of Syria in the civil war there.
“I don’t think this is 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,” he said.