Aboard a U.S. Military Aircraft— Gen. Martin Dempsey says that once he determines the Islamic State militants in Iraq have become a direct threat to the U.S. homeland, he will recommend the U.S. military move directly against the group in Syria.
But the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said that right now, he still believes the insurgent group is still more a regional threat and is not plotting or planning attacks against either the U.S. or Europe.
Dempsey did not rule out strikes for any other critical reasons, but listed a homeland threat as one of the key triggers for any military action in Syria.
The Obama administration has restricted its military action against the militants to specific operations within Iraq.
But the rampage of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, known as ISIS, across wide swaths of Iraq, their declaration of a state governed by their harsh interpretation of Islamic law in territory spanning the Iraq-Syria border, and grisly beheading of an American journalist and threats against another have injected a new dynamic into those calculations. Now, Obama faces pressure from his own military leaders to go after the extremists inside Syria.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican, said the Islamic State militants are a “very real threat” to the United states because they are “one plane ticket away from U.S. shores.”
“The reason ISIS is so successful is there was nothing deterring them for years. So they recruited, they financed, they trained,” he said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Sunday, jihadis captured a major military air base in northeastern Syria, eliminating the last government-held outpost in a province otherwise dominated by the Islamic State group. After several failed attempts, Islamic State fighters stormed the Tabqa air base, killing dozens of troops inside.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said soldiers were withdrawn to nearby areas, along with their weaponry and warplanes. Videos posted on militant websites Monday showed Islamic State celebrations in Tabqa, including fighters honking noisily as they drove in cars carrying the group’s black-and-white flags.
Monday, Syria said it was ready to help confront the rising threat from the Islamic State group, but warned the United States against carrying out airstrikes without Damascus’ consent, saying any such attack would be considered an aggression.
Dempsey told reporters traveling with him that he believes that key allies in the region — including Jordan, Turkey and Saudi Arabia — will join the U.S. in quashing the Islamic State group. Qatar aided the release Sunday of another freelance journalist, held by Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaida-linked group in Syria.
“I think ISIS has been so brutal, and has wrapped itself in a radical religious legitimacy that clearly threatens everybody I just mentioned, that I think they will be willing partners,” said Dempsey, expressing optimism for the first time that the Arab nations would join in the conflict.
Last week, Dempsey said the surging Islamic State group has an “apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision” in the Middle East and cannot be defeated unless confronted head-on in Syria.
He contrasted the Islamic State group to the Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which has plotted and attempted attacks against the U.S. and Europe. As a result, the U.S. has conducted counterterrorism strikes against the group within Yemen.
Dempsey said that there is no sign that the Islamic State militants are engaged in “active plotting against the homeland, so it’s different than that which we see in Yemen.”
“I can tell you with great clarity and certainty that if that threat existed inside of Syria that it would certainly be my strong recommendation that we would deal with it,” said Dempsey.
At the White House, spokesman Josh Earnest said the administration is concerned about the threat posed by Westerners who have joined the extremist group. More than a thousand radicals from Europe have joined militants in Syria and Iraq, and Interpol has long warned of the threat such fighters pose.
French President Francois Hollande urged other countries to wake up to the threat of the group. “This is a terrorist enterprise that has decided to enslave, annihilate, destroy,” he said last week.
Police and spy agencies are close to identifying the English-accented militant depicted on video showing the killing Foley, Britain’s ambassador to the United States said Sunday.
About 20 journalists from around the world are believed held by Islamist militant groups in Syria, many of them by Islamic State, said Sherif Mansour of the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York. An additional 12 journalists are believed held by the Syrian government, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Angela Charlton and Ryan Lucas of the Associated Press and David Zucchino of the Los Angeles Times contributed.