Obama this week authorized U.S. military surveillance flights over Syria, an escalation of his administration's involvement in that country's civil war that led to speculation that the president would soon pursue air strikes against the base of operations of the Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS, in Syria. The jihadist group, which has exhibited sophisticated and powerful military operations, has gained control of wide swaths of territory in both Syria and Iraq, making the Obama administration's calculations more complicated.
Obama, who was set to meet with his National Security Council on Thursday afternoon, said he has consulted congressional leaders and will continue to do so as his administration considers next steps.
However, the president firmly defended his previous decisions to authorize limited air strikes against Islamic State advances in Iraq and a military operation to rescue members of a minority religious group in that country whose lives were at risk when they were isolated and trapped on the Sinjar Mountain. Obama said he took that action only after the group's forces threatened the safety of U.S. diplomatic personnel in Irbil.
"It is not just part of my responsibility, but my sacred duty as commander in chief to protect the American people," Obama said. "That requires me to act fast based on information I receive if embassies of ours or consulates of ours are being threatened. The decisions I made were based on very concrete assessments based on the poss Irbil might be overrun. ... I can't wait to make sure our people are protected...and the feedback I've gotten from Congress is that we're doing the right thing."
Obama's remarks came a week after the Islamic State distributed a video showing one of its members beheading U.S. journalist James Foley, who was captured in 2012 while covering the war in Syria. The group's barbaric tactics, aimed at shocking and instilling fear into its adversaries, has also included torturing Foley and other hostages, including the technique of waterboarding, according to recent reports.
The images of the killing of Foley, as well as of thousands of Syrian and Iraqi troops and civilians, has ramped up public pressure on Obama to take stronger action. But the president, who ended the U.S. war in Iraq during his first term, has been reluctant to send U.S. forces into a battle with no clear end game.
"I want to make sure everybody's clear on what we're doing now because it is limited," Obama said. "Our focus right now is to protect American personnel on the ground in Iraq, to protect our embassy, to protect our consulates, to make sure that critical infrastructure that could adversely affect our personnel is protected."
He added that: "I am confident that as commander in chief I have the authorities to engage in the acts that we are conducting currently. As our strategy develops, we will continue to consult with Congress, and I do think that it'll be important for Congress to weigh in and we're -- that our consultations with Congress continue to develop so that the American people are part of the debate."
Obama also said he had spoken earlier Thursday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel about the situation in eastern Ukraine, where Russian forces have reportedly taken control of a key coastal town.
"President [Vladimir] Putin and Russia have repeatedly passed by potential off-ramps to resolve this diplomatically," Obama said. "And so, in our consultations with the -- our European allies and partners, my expectation is, is that we will take additional steps, primarily because we have not seen any meaningful action on the part of Russia to actually try to resolve this in diplomatic fashion."