President Obama on Thursday said the U.S. does "not have a strategy yet" for combating the Islamic State in Syria and suggested reports of an imminent military intervention were premature.
"I don’t want to put the cart before the horse. We don’t have a strategy yet," Obama said in response to questions about whether he was considering expanding the airstrikes he has ordered against ISIL in Iraq to target the terrorist group's "safe haven" in Syria.
The president said there would be "no point" in asking Congress to authorize military action when, essentially, he didn't know what the mission would be.
Obama has come under increasing pressure from Republicans in Congress to strike at ISIL in Syria following the videotaped beheading of American photojournalist James Foley. And top defense officials have said the U.S. cannot hope to defeat ISIL by focusing on its advances in Iraq alone.
The president did not dispute the importance of what he acknowledged was ISIL's "safe haven" in Syria, but he made clear that his short-term focus remained Iraq.
"My priority at this point is to make sure that the gains that ISIL made in Iraq are rolled back," he said.
On Syria, Obama said the U.S. needed to work with allies to develop a "regional strategy" to take on ISIL, and he said the U.S. would not partner with the Assad regime, which for years has ignored his calls to step aside.
"The issue with respect to Syria is not simply a military issue. It's also a political issue," Obama said.
Speaking before a meeting of his National Security Council, the president also condemned Russia's military incursion into eastern Ukraine, but he stopped short of calling it an "invasion."
"Russia has deliberately and repeatedly violated the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine," Obama said. "I consider the actions we’ve seen in the last week a continuation of what we’ve seen for months now."
The president was emphatic that Russia was entirely responsible for the violent uprising in eastern Ukraine, accusing the former Cold War foe of training, arming and otherwise assisting the separatist rebels battling the Ukraine military.
"This is not a homegrown, indigenous uprising in eastern Ukraine," he said.
Warning that Russia had become more isolated on the world stage than it has been in the last quarter century, Obama argued that Vladimir Putin's provocations were making Russia weaker, not stronger.
"That may not be apparent immediately, but I think it is going to become increasingly apparent," he said.
Obama wouldn't say exactly what consequence Russia might face beyond additional sanctions, and he ruled out any U.S. military confrontation.
"We are not taking military action to solve the Ukrainian problem," he said. "I think it is very important to recognize that a military solution to this problem is not going to be forthcoming."
Russia's ongoing aggression in Ukraine can only be called one thing: a cross-border military invasion. To claim it is anything other than that is to inhabit President Putin’s Orwellian universe."
"The president needs to definitively state whether or not Russia has invaded Ukraine and immediately condemn this overt escalation of an already serious conflict.”
Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) demanded a "strong and immediate response" from Obama.
“Moscow’s invasion and major escalation in Ukraine demands a strong and immediate response. I call on the president to immediately impose tougher sanctions against Russia and provide the Ukrainian government the weapons they need and have long requested to defend Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
UPDATE: Republicans quickly pounced on Obama's comments about the lack of a U.S. strategy for ISIL in Syria.
Not having a strategy perfectly sums up the foreign policy approach of President Obama's entire presidency.— Michele Bachmann (@MicheleBachmann) August 28, 2014
President says "we don’t have a strategy yet" to deal with #ISIS. That's obvious and increasingly unacceptable.— Tom Price (@RepTomPrice) August 28, 2014
And within an hour of the president leaving the podium, White House press secretary Josh Earnest attempted to clean up his remarks.
In his remarks today, POTUS was explicit - as he has been in the past - about the comprehensive strategy we'll use to confront ISIL threat.— Josh Earnest (@PressSec) August 28, 2014
POTUS today: "our military action in Iraq has to be part of a broader, comprehensive strategy to protect our people..." 1/5— Josh Earnest (@PressSec) August 28, 2014
POTUS today (cont): "...and to support our partners who are taking the fight to ISIL. And that starts with Iraq’s leaders... " 2/5— Josh Earnest (@PressSec) August 28, 2014
POTUS today (cont):"...building on the progress that they’ve made so far & forming an inclusive govt that will unite their country..." 3/5— Josh Earnest (@PressSec) August 28, 2014
POTUS today (cont.): "Any successful strategy, though, also needs strong regional partners." 4/5— Josh Earnest (@PressSec) August 28, 2014
POTUS today (cont.): "I’ll be meeting with my National Security Council again this evening as we continue to develop that strategy." 5/5— Josh Earnest (@PressSec) August 28, 2014