President Barack Obama may be rethinking his strategy to defeat the Islamic State.
Senior U.S. officials and diplomats have reportedly told CNN that the president has asked his national security team to review the administration’s strategies for dealing with the group often referred to as ISIS or ISIL.
Some speculate that the reported four meetings of top White House officials in the last week could signal the administration is coming terms with a reality that ISIS may not be defeated without removing from power Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
That would mean pivoting away from the “Iraq first” strategy the administration previously endorsed. That strategy centered on driving the militant Islamic group out of Iraq while supporting the moderate opposition forces, battling al-Assad, in Syria.
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“Developments on the ground have caused the national security team to collectively conclude we may not have time for Iraq first. In an ideal world you would drive ISIL out of Iraq and pivot to Syria. But if by then the moderate opposition has been smacked and ISIL is still there, that doesn't help,” an unnamed administration official said.
“The long-running Syria problem is now compounded by the reality that to genuinely defeat ISIL, we need not only a defeat in Iraq but a defeat in Syria,” said another.
Rumors that there may be misgivings about the administration’s moderate approach to Syria surfaced late last month with news that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel sent a memo to National Security Advisor Susan Rice criticizing the strategy.
The New York Times first reported the existence of the memo, according to a subsequent Reuters story.
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Hagel later declined to discuss particulars of the memo but said in a press conference: “We owe the president and we owe the National Security Council our best thinking on this.
“And it has to be honest and it has to be direct,” he added.
The talk at the recent administration meetings was said to be “driven to a large degree how our Syria strategy fits into our ISIS strategy,” according to another unnamed administration official.
But other administration personnel sought to downplay rumors that the president was thinking about making a strategy shift to Syria and al-Assad.
Alistair Baskey, spokesman for the National Security Council, was one of them.
“The strategy with respect to Syria has not changed: While the immediate focus remains to drive ISIL out of Iraq, we and coalition partners will continue to strike at ISIL in Syria to deny them safe haven and to disrupt their ability to project power,” he said in a statement Wednesday.
But he added that, “Assad has been the biggest magnet for extremism in Syria, and the President has made clear that Assad has lost all legitimacy to govern.”
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