The militant group also known by the acronyms ISIS or ISIL is an Al Qaeda offshoot that has seized large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria for its self-styled caliphate, or Islamic state. The militants espouse an especially harsh interpretation of Islam and have used brutal tactics, including mass shootings, beheadings and crucifixions, to impose their rule.
Until now, the president has resisted getting drawn into the 3-year-old civil war in Syria and limited U.S. airstrikes to militant targets in Iraq.
But the president has reconsidered his position as Islamic State has grown stronger and issued threats against the U.S. Last month, he authorized military surveillance flights over Syria to gather intelligence on possible targets.- Alexandra Zavis
That’s a major concern for the president’s national security team. As the picture in Syria and Iraq grew more complicated over the summer, Russia-backed fighters turned more aggressive against their neighbors in Ukraine. The conflict between Israel and Hamas simmers as talks with Iran continue outside the limelight. “By the way, we’re still at war in Afghanistan,” said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, noting that there’s also plenty to do in Pakistan and central Asia. “Any talk of rebalancing to Asia is probably not going to happen,” said Cordesman, referring to Obama’s repeated attempts to turn attention to the challenges presented by China on the rise.
Members of Iraq’s Sunni and Kurdish minorities don’t trust the Shiite Muslim-led military or the Shiite militias that have joined the fight against Islamic State and accuse them of pursuing a sectarian agenda.
There are also long-standing disputes between leaders in Baghdad and in the semiautonomous Kurdish region, whose peshmerga forces took over the contested oil hub of Kirkuk when government troops fled the Islamist assault in June.
Expanding U.S. airstrikes into Syria could put U.S. forces in the uncomfortable position of aiding the government of President Bashar Assad, whom the U.S. wants to see replaced.
Any further U.S. involvement also risks inflaming regional tensions. - Alexandra Zavis