The Obama administration is urgently considering an air assault on Islamic extremists that officials told the Guardian could be directed at targets in Syria as well as Iraq.
President Obama announced on Friday that in the “days ahead” he will decide on a package of military and diplomatic options to halt the rapid advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), as the jihadist army’s march from Syria through Sunni Iraq has upended Obama’s achievement of extricating the US military from the Iraq conflict.
Obama has ruled out sending US soldiers and marines back to the Iraqi streets they patrolled from 2003 to 2011, but signalled a new, reluctant openness to returning the US to war in Iraq.
Isis “could pose a threat eventually to American interests as well,” Obama said in a televised address, but vowed not to be “dragged back into a situation in which, while we’re there keeping a lid on things, and after enormous sacrifices by us, as soon as we’re not there, people end up acting in ways that are not conducive to the long-term stability and prosperity of the country.”
Officials on Friday pointed to a sense of urgency owing to the speed and potency of the Isis assault; the collapse of the Iraqi army in Mosul; and the corresponding threat to the viability of the Iraqi government.
Options under discussion include an air campaign, using either or both air force or navy warplanes, the potential duration of which has yet to be determined. Drone strikes remain under consideration, but manned aircraft are said to the preferred option, owing to their superiority against moving and manoeuvrable targets.
Two officials said that a strike at Isis in Iraq and Syria was under consideration.
Isis “is now across the border,” said a Pentagon official, who requested anonymity. “It is possible to take out the head, you’ve got to take out the heart … Everything is being looked at.”
Officials pointed to the extensive military planning last summer for what looked like an imminent air attack on Syria that ultimately did not come to pass. While that planning targeted the regime of Bashar al-Assad, they said it formed a basis for modification against the current cross-border threat from Isis.
Any potential military strikes in Syrian territory would be complicated by the potential repercussions for the country’s three-year civil war.
Christopher Harmer, a retired US naval officer who analyses the Middle East for the Institute for the Study of War, said the Pentagon was “playing catch-up.”
“The Pentagon has been considering targets in Syria for 18 months, but everything they’re looking at is Assad,” Harmer said. “Isis is just something we haven’t looked at closely or not closely enough.”
Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, facing a threat to his government, is no longer asking for additional or more rapidly delivered missiles, ammunition and other military equipment, but rather for direct US intervention, similar to the air strikes he had requested earlier and the Obama administration rejected.
There remains deep scepticism within the administration and the military about the wisdom of attacking Isis in either Iraq or Syria. Obama has been extremely reluctant to involve the US in either conflict, and his administration considers shifting the US off what it calls a permanent wartime footing to be a first-order foreign policy priority.
Frustration exists with the favoritism Maliki has shown his fellow Shias, which Isis has successfully exploited amongst Sunni Iraqis, leaving many in the administration wondering about the aftermath of any air strikes, since the aftermath of the quick 2003 capture of Baghdad was a bloody, costly nine-year occupation.
“This is not solely, or even primarily, a military challenge,” Obama said on Friday, signaling that US military support depends on Maliki and other Iraqi leaders “set[ting] aside sectarian differences.”
“We can’t do it for them, and in the absence of this type of political effort, short term military action, including any assistance we might provide, won’t succeed,” Obama said.
“This should be a wake-up call. Iraq’s leaders have to demonstrate a willingness to make hard decisions.”
Carl Levin, the Democratic chairman of the Senate armed services committee, expressed those doubts after emerging from a briefing with defence officials on Thursday.
“While all options should be considered, the problem in Iraq has not been so much a lack of direct US military involvement, but a lack of reconciliation on the part of Iraqi leaders,” Levin said.
The time it takes for Obama to reach a decision on the strikes impacts the scope of the campaign. With Isis on the roads and in the open, their positions are easier to strike than if and when they enter Iraqi cities, with the attendant risk to Iraqi civilians, and the US does not have forces on the ground to aid air targeting.
“Are we really going to trust [Iraqi soldiers] to call in US air strikes?” Harmer said. “If the US is going to act, sooner is better, unless you want to get involved in urban combat.”
Although the White House’s national security team was urgently reviewing potential targets, a decision on whether to launch air strikes was not expected on Friday. Two administration officials said a decision by Obama was more likely “in the next few days,” although they stressed that might change depending on the situation on the ground in Iraq.
In London, the US secretary of state John Kerry told reporters Obama would move swiftly. “Given the gravity of the situation, I would anticipate timely decisions from the president regarding the challenge,” he said. “I am confident the US will move rapidly and effectively to join with our allies in dealing with this challenge.”
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