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Obama Again Faces Syria Military Action08/23 09:49

   For three years, President Barack Obama has resisted the pull of potential 
U.S. military action in Syria. Now Obama must decide whether the extremist 
group's murder of American journalist James Foley, as well as the broader 
threat the group could pose to U.S. interests, should change his cautious 

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- For three years, President Barack Obama has resisted the 
pull of potential U.S. military action in Syria.

   He has held firm even as the civil war's death toll climbed toward 200,000, 
the Syrian government used chemical weapons against civilians and Islamic State 
militants strengthened amid the chaos.

   Now Obama must decide whether the extremist group's murder of American 
journalist James Foley, as well as the broader threat the group could pose to 
U.S. interests, should change his cautious calculus.

   Pressure is coming from his own military leaders to go after the Islamic 
State inside Syria. But he must weigh that against his aversion to the risks 
that could come with plunging the United States into a country torn apart by an 
intractable internal conflict.

   White House officials have suggested that airstrikes in Syria are an option, 
though the officials say specific military proposals has not yet been presented 
to the president.

   "We're actively considering what's going to be necessary to deal with that 
threat, and we're not going to be restricted by borders," said Ben Rhodes, 
Obama's deputy national security adviser. "We've shown time and again that if 
there's a counterterrorism threat, we'll take direct action against that 
threat, if necessary."

   Even before Foley's murder, Obama found himself on far different footing in 
the Middle East than he probably expected in the sixth year of his presidency.

   After running for the White House on a pledge to end the Iraq war and then 
making good on that promise in late 2011, Obama thrust the U.S. military back 
into Iraq this month with a limited airstrike campaign against Islamic State 

   Obama has said he will not send U.S. combat troops to another ground war in 
the Mideast. But expanding the airstrikes in Iraq and broadening them to 
include Syria could mean a lengthy American military commitment in the region 
that could consume much of Obama's remaining time in office.

   "What we should have learned over the past dozen years in that part of the 
world is that the use of military power is very unpredictable," said Stephen 
Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School 
of Government.

   That may be particularly true in Syria, where President Bashar Assad's 
government is warring with opposition forces. Unlike in Iraq, the battle lines 
are more clearly drawn. Syria has a host of military players in close proximity 
to each other, including the Islamic State, the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, 
mainstream Western-backed rebels and pro-government forces.

   The Islamic State is among the groups fighting Assad, meaning a U.S. 
campaign to weaken the extremists could actually strengthen a leader the White 
House has sought to push from office.

   Obama could try to counteract that uncomfortable dynamic by also taking 
strikes against Assad, though that could put the U.S. on the hook for the kind 
of long-term commitment to rebuilding Syria that he has tried to avoid.

   The risks are no less troubling if Obama allows the Islamic State to 
continue having unfettered access to a safe haven in Syria. Politically, it 
could bolster the argument from his critics that he is overseeing an American 
retreat on the world stage. It also could give the militants space to 
strengthen and become a threat not just to U.S. interests in the region, but 
also to the U.S. at home.

   Obama's own military leadership made clear in recent days that the threat 
from the Islamic State cannot be fully eliminated without going after the group 
in Syria, as well as Iraq.

   "This is an organization that has an apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic 
vision and which will eventually have to be defeated," said Army Gen. Martin 
Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "Can they be defeated 
without addressing that part of their organization which resides in Syria? The 
answer is no. That will have to be addressed on both sides of what is 
essentially at this point a nonexistent border."

   To White House critics, the unappetizing options are the result of Obama's 
own foreign policy missteps. They argue that he gave extremists an opening in 
Iraq by not doing more to reach an agreement with the Iraqi government to leave 
U.S. forces in the country after 2011. They say his decision to not provide 
heavy weaponry to more moderate rebel groups in Syria also helped facilitate 
the Islamic State's rise.

   Without a course correction, Obama's critics argue, the U.S. will be at 
greater risk.

   "If we do not do more to assist our Iraqi partners and those moderate 
Syrians who are fighting ISIL and directly target ISIL's leadership and 
networks in Iraq and Syria, I fear that James Foley will not be the only 
American to die at their hands," said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., using one of 
the acronyms for the Islamic State.

   Obama's advisers say the responsibility for stemming the rise of the Islamic 
State does not rest solely with the United States. The White House has been 
imploring Sunni states in the region --- Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United 
Arab Emirates in particular --- to wield their influence with tribal leaders in 
Iraq and get them to push the Islamic State out of areas they have occupied.

   The U.S. also has been discussing ways that allies such as Britain, France, 
Australia and Canada can become involved through intelligence sharing, military 
assistance for Kurdish forces in Iraq and moderate opposition forces in Syria, 
and if necessary, joining the U.S. in military action.


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