President Obama and his top national security officials are fanning out across the globe this week and next, seeking commitments to help the Iraqi government in its fight against Islamic State militants.
Those expecting an international action plan against the Islamic State in neighboring Syria are likely to be disappointed.
In recent days, the administration has spoken repeatedly of building a broad coalition to degrade and defeat the militant group that controls a borderless swath of both countries. Last week, Obama said he has requested options for military action against the Islamic State in Syria, giving rise to a widespread belief that U.S. airstrikes might be imminent.
But the administration’s primary goal in the upcoming consultations, senior administration officials said, is to organize expanded international military, diplomatic and other support for Iraq’s new government and security services, enabling them to reverse gains made by the Sunni Muslim militant group and push its forces back toward Syria.
In what one senior official called a “phased” strategy, plans for dealing directly with Syria will be far more complicated. Various components could take months, or well into next year, before they show progress.
“The defeat goal is one that is realized over time,” Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, Lisa Monaco, said Thursday.
“The first piece of this . . . the key ingredient” is Iraq, she said.
Obama, Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel are consulting with NATO allies at an alliance summit that began Thursday in Wales. Kerry, Hagel and Monaco will then travel to the Middle East to brief and recruit additional partners for efforts to establish an inclusive Iraqi government and to help its security forces.
Officials from several of the countries to be consulted expressed concern over the administration’s tight focus on Iraq. Public and congressional opinion, long opposed to U.S. military action in Syria, is now focused on action in response to the Islamic State’s execution of two American journalists captured in Syria. The president, these officials insisted, should seize the moment.
A number of foreign and U.S. officials, saying they were anxious not to undercut the pending consultations before they occur, agreed to discuss plans and concerns only on the condition of anonymity.
The core of the coalition the administration seeks for Iraq includes major NATO partners. Some of them, including Britain, France and Canada, have already participated in humanitarian airdrops to Iraqi communities besieged by Islamic State forces and have delivered weapons to the Iraqi military or Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq. Germany has said it will also supply weapons. Tiny Albania, a NATO member, has agreed to supply Soviet-era weapons used by the Kurds. Others, including Australia, have also participated.
The administration would like all involved to do more of the same and possibly to join U.S. forces in airstrikes begun against Islamic State positions in Iraq last month.
Kerry will meet with partners in the Persian Gulf, where Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have long pressed the administration for more aggressive action in Syria, and he will also travel to Jordan. Hagel will visit Turkey.
While some may be asked to help the United States train and equip Iraqi security forces, the coalition assignments the administration has in mind for regional partners are largely political and diplomatic.
Iraqi prime minister-designate Haider al-Abadi is scheduled to announce a new government Wednesday that the administration hopes will turn the page on the sectarian rule of former leader Nouri al-Maliki. Although both are members of Iraq’s Shiite majority, Abadi has pledged an inclusive government that will win support from long-marginalized Sunnis and Kurds.
The administration believes that early signs from Abadi will be enough for the region’s Sunni governments — and the influential tribal and clerical leaders they support — to promote a shift in the Sunni population. U.S. officials would also like to see those governments establish a full diplomatic presence in Baghdad, something they avoided under Maliki.
Although consultations will not focus directly on Syria, the administration sees the Iraq coalition as the first step toward a longer-term strategy to confront militant expansion in Syria and beyond.
Stung by what it considered widespread misinterpretation of Obama’s comment last week that “we don’t have a strategy yet” for dealing with the Islamic State in Syria, the administration has been at pains to explain its plan.
While the focus in recent weeks has been on military components, Monaco explained in a briefing for reporters that it also includes what she called “counter-messaging” to combat the Islamic State’s skillful use of online and social media. Law enforcement and intelligence assets are being mobilized to disrupt the flow of foreign fighters, especially between Europe and Syria, and there is a renewed emphasis on stopping the flow of money to the militants.
Officials did not rule out early airstrikes in Syria should circumstances demand it, and several of the coalition partners have said they would be willing to participate. Administration lawyers are studying the domestic and international legal justification for U.S. military action inside Syria’s borders.
But officials believe that airstrikes in Syria, in the absence of a viable partner to take over territory now held by the Islamic State, would accomplish little in the short term. The necessary targeting information is also lacking, and Obama only recently authorized surveillance flights over militant strongholds.
Instead, the administration plans a renewed emphasis on weapons and training for Western-backed “moderate” opposition rebels fighting both the Islamic State and other militant groups and the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
Such assistance has been the focus of what has been a largely unsuccessful administration policy for the past several years. The difference now, officials said, will be a major acceleration of effort, under U.S. leadership, from all coalition members. Obama has proposed a $500 million U.S. fund for that purpose and a shift in responsibility from a relatively small training program under the CIA to one operated by the U.S. military.
It is a time-consuming operation, for which neither the money nor the shift to military responsibility has been approved by Congress.
Although it has sporadically consulted congressional leaders over the August recess, the administration plans to ramp up those discussions beginning Friday, when intelligence officials are to brief key lawmakers. In a Thursday radio interview with “The Hugh Hewitt Show,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said that hearings on the Islamic State were already planned by the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs, Armed Services and Homeland Security committees.
McCarthy and other senior Republicans have called for more aggressive action by the administration. In an op-ed on the Web site of Time magazine Friday, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) criticized Obama’s pledge that there will be no U.S. combat “boots on the ground” in either Iraq or Syria.
“To defeat this enemy, we will have to risk Americans who will be operating in the fight,” Rogers wrote. “We should use every aspect of hard and soft power to accomplish our objective.”