Barack Obama has played down the prospect of imminent US military action in Syria, saying “we don’t have a strategy yet” for degrading the violent militant group seeking to establish a caliphate in the Middle East.
The president spoke shortly before convening a meeting of his national security advisers to discuss a range of Pentagon options for confronting the Islamic State (IS) group.
The US is already striking militant targets in Iraq and administration officials have said the president was considering similar action in neighbouring Syria.
Mr Obama’s decision to speak on the matter appeared to be aimed at clarifying the speed with which he planned to decide on expanding the US military response. While some officials have indicated the process would be fast-moving, the president suggested a longer timeline.
“We don’t have a strategy yet,” Mr Obama said. “I think that’s not just my assessment, but the assessment of our military, as well. We need to make sure that we’ve got clear plans, that we’re developing them.”
The statement appeared certain to open up Mr Obama to criticism from Republicans who have complained for months that the president lacked a broad strategy for confronting militants in Iraq and Syria.
White House officials quickly sought to clean up after the president, insisting that he was talking only about a lack of a clear military strategy in Syria, not a more wide-ranging approach to degrading IS.
But his critics said it was both shocking and concerning. House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers said the lack of urgency demonstrated that Mr Obama still did not understand the extent of the threat posed by the Islamic State.
“It just confirmed what we’ve been talking about really for almost two years: there has been no real strategy,” Mr Rogers said.
Mr Obama outlined the beginnings of what he called a “regional strategy” that could involve other nations and focus on political as well as military solutions. In blunt terms, the president said it was time for Middle Eastern nations to “stop being ambivalent” about the aims of extremist groups like IS.
“They have no ideology beyond violence and chaos and the slaughter of innocent people,” he said, alluding to the group’s announcement last week that it had killed American journalist James Foley. The militants have also threatened to kill other US hostages in Syria.
The president said he was dispatching secretary of state John Kerry to the Middle East soon to discuss the matter with regional partners. Mr Obama will also meet world leaders in Europe next week during a Nato summit.
The heightened threat from IS comes at a time of instability elsewhere in the world that has challenged Mr Obama’s desire to keep the US out of military conflicts. Russia has escalated its threatening moves in Ukraine, with Ukrainian officials accusing Russia of entering its territory with tanks, artillery and troops.
Despite the increased tensions, Obama ruled out any military options in Ukraine and proposed no shift in an American-led strategy that has yet to convince Moscow to halt operations against its far weaker neighbour.
In outlining his strategy for confronting IS, the president said his top priority remained rolling back the militants’ gains in Iraq, where he has said they pose a threat to US staff in Erbil and Baghdad.
Some of Mr Obama’s top military advisers have said IS cannot be defeated unless the US also goes after the group inside Syria.
The president did not rule out that possibility, but said that if he were to expand the military mission, he would consult members of Congress, who are due to return to Washington in early September.