President Obama said Thursday that he has asked military planners to come up with options for action against Islamic State militants that focus on targets in Iraq but also include the possibility of strikes in Syria.
If the U.S. is going to "degrade" the Al Qaeda splinter group over the long term, Obama said, he needs a strategy that involves allies and partners in the Middle East to deny the group "safe haven" in Syria.
But the president also downplayed the idea that strikes against the terrorist group in Syria might be imminent, saying he didn't want to "put the cart before the horse."
"The suggestion seems to have been that we're about to go full-scale on an elaborate strategy for defeating ISIL," Obama said, using one of the acronyms for the extremist group. "The suggestion has been that we'll start moving forward imminently and somehow Congress, still out of town, is going to be left in the dark.
"That's not what's going to happen," Obama told reporters in a question-and-answer session.
Last week, a visibly angry Obama condemned the group's beheading of American journalist James Foley, vowing that the U.S. would be vigilant and relentless in protecting its people.
Regardless of when or if the U.S. strikes in Syria, Obama said Thursday, it will take more than military action to defeat Islamic State, which has also issued explicit threats to other Americans.
Administration officials say the U.S. is working with Sunni leaders in the region, first and foremost to make sure they feel that they have an investment in a government that can protect them. The members of Islamic State are Sunnis.
As those talks continue, so does Islamic State's brutality in the region. On Thursday, the group said it had killed more than 160 Syrian soldiers captured over the last few months. Backers of the group posted high-resolution images and videos on Twitter and YouTube, claiming to show the group's fighters leading bedraggled Syrian soldiers to a mass grave and killing them.
Obama's calculations about targeting the extremists in Syria are complicated by concerns about how that might help President Bashar Assad, who has subjected civilians in his country to abduction, torture, military attacks and allegedly the use of chemical weapons.
But Obama suggested Thursday that he didn't have to choose between the two.
"Right now what we're seeing is that the areas that ISIL is occupying are not controlled by Assad anyway," Obama said. "Frankly, Assad doesn't seem to have the capability or reach to get into those areas. So I don't think there's a situation where we have to choose between Assad or the kinds of people who carry on the incredible violence that we've been seeing there."
The U.S. will keep working to back a moderate opposition in Syria in hopes of giving Syrians an alternative to both Assad and the extremists.
"I don't see any scenario in which Assad somehow is able to bring peace and stability to a region that is majority Sunni and has not so far shown any willingness to share power with them, or in any kind of significant way deal with the long-standing grievances that they have there," Obama said.
Assad is a member of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite