WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Despite outrage at home and abroad over the grisly beheading of an American journalist, President Barack Obama is unlikely to deepen military involvement in Iraq or Syria and will instead stay the course with U.S. air strikes, U.S. officials say.
U.S. officials appeared rattled by the video posted on social media on Tuesday showing a masked, black-clad militant executing James Foley, 40, and declaring war against the United States in retaliation for nearly two weeks of U.S. air strikes on jihadist targets in Iraq.
But several administration officials said there were no plans to significantly alter the U.S. campaign against Islamic State militants who have seized a third of Iraq since June, or to expand military action to neighboring Syria, where the group has gained strength during its brutal civil war.
“From a military perspective, I don’t think this is going to change anything,” a U.S. official said on condition of anonymity. “The military objective never was to degrade ISIL,” the official said, using another name for the militant group. “It was to protect U.S. personnel and facilities.”
Obama called Islamic State a “cancer” with a bankrupt ideology at a news conference on Wednesday. He described Iraqis waging a fight against Islamic state, with U.S. support. Not long after he spoke, the Pentagon said U.S. aircraft conducted 14 air strikes in the vicinity of Iraq’s Mosul Dam, destroying or damaging militants’ Humvees, trucks and explosives.
Obama’s decision to forego a direct military response to the killing underscores the White House’s aversion to becoming more entangled in the mayhem gripping both Iraq and Syria.
Since the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began in 2011, the White House has stressed the limitations of U.S. power to shape events in the Middle East, pushing back against criticism of its muted response to bloodshed there.
In Syria, where an estimated 170,000 people have died in three years, the president has shied away from using U.S. military might, even after accusing Assad of using chemical weapons against civilians. U.S. officials instead have tried to broker a diplomatic deal and, with more success, sought to eliminate Assad’s chemical stockpiles.
In Iraq, where Obama ended a war that killed thousands of American soldiers and consumed U.S. foreign policy for nearly a decade, the White House launched air strikes only after militants threatened not only the capital of Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish region but Baghdad itself.
Since Aug. 8, U.S. drones and fighter jets have hit armored vehicles, artillery weapons and other targets of hardline Sunni Muslim fighters. The goal, U.S. officials say, has been to protect U.S. facilities in the Iraqi Kurdish capital Arbil and nearby civilians, not to destroy Islamic State itself.
“Our strategy is to (help Iraqis) push them back from territory they’ve gained,” a second U.S. official said.
As U.S. air strikes gather momentum, so too have Islamic State threats against the United States. On Monday, the group promised to “drown all of you (Americans) in blood.” The next day, before the video of Foley’s killing surfaced, another message warned of a holy war against “crusader” America.
While there have been fears for several years that jihadists with European or U.S. passports could launch an attack in the West, the United States has avoided aggressive intervention in Iraq, leaving Iraqi forces to the fight the militants — a position generally supported by public opinion polls.
A Reuters-IPSOS Poll in June, for instance, showed that 55 percent of those surveyed would disagree with the Obama administration involving the U.S. military in Iraq. Only 20 percent of Americans polled would support military action in Iraq, according to the poll.
It’s unclear whether the beheading of Foley will turn the tide of public opinion, but support for military action appears to be growing. A poll this week, before the Foley video was published, showed that most Americans approve of U.S. air strikes in Iraq and an increasing number thought the United States has a responsibility to act there.
U.S. soldiers attempted to rescue Foley and other Americans held in Syria earlier this summer, but were unsuccessful, U.S. officials said on Wednesday.
“The effort to roll (Islamic State) back into (Syria) is a commitment the administration has been unwilling to make,” said Faysal Itani, a Middle East expert at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank. “The death of this man, however tragic, will not cause a fundamental recalculation of that policy.”
While chances of deeper involvement are slim for now, the United States risks being pulled further into the Iraq-Syria conflict if the threat from Islamic State grows. That may force U.S. officials to revive options that military leaders presented in the past, such as launching air strikes in Syria. Other options could include drone attacks in parts of eastern Syria that Assad does not control, as has been done in areas of Pakistan and Yemen.
“Obama is being dragged into this,” said James Jeffrey, a veteran diplomat who was U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2010-2012. “His reluctance is simply untenable.”
Washington has also sent over 800 soldiers to Iraq since June. On Wednesday, U.S. officials said that up to 300 additional military personnel could be sent to Iraq to provide security for U.S. diplomats.
Additional reporting by Steve Holland and Lesley Wroughton. Writing By Missy Ryan. Editing by Jason Szep and Peter Henderson