Obama says 'no strategy yet' as IS execute scores of Syrian soldiers
US President Barack Obama admitted on Thursday that he does not yet have a strategy to fight the Islamic State (IS) in Syria, as militants boasted they had executed scores of Syrian troops.
Playing down reports of imminent US air strikes in Syria, Obama said he was developing a comprehensive plan to defeat IS, which has also overrun large swathes of Iraq.
“I don’t want to put the cart before the horse. We don’t have strategy yet,” Obama told reporters.
The civil war in Syria has killed some 191,000 people since it erupted in March 2011 when President Bashar al-Assad brutally put down an uprising against his rule.
In recent months IS has risen in power within Syria and Iraq. A series of mass executions and harsh treatment of minorities has led to the US carrying out dozens of air strikes against the group in Iraq since early August.
Obama said on Wednesday that IS is an issue involving all the Sunni states in the region and that leaders must recognise this “cancer” is one they must invest in to defeat.
The chaotic situation on the ground in Syria was underlined this week by the seizing of 43 UN peacekeepers on the Golan Heights by rival rebels, led by al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front.
The UN troops were part of a mission that has monitored an armistice between Syrian and Israeli troops on the strategic plateau for decades.
Obama said on Thursday he was dispatching Secretary of State John Kerry to the Middle East to build support in the region against the IS militants.
The group posted grisly video footage on the Internet of scores of bodies heaped in the desert and boasted they were Syrian soldiers captured and killed following the seizure of Tabqa air base.
Britain-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said IS had executed at least 160 soldiers, among some 500 who had been fighting to escape to government-held territory after their defeat last Sunday.
'No need to choose between IS and Assad'
The footage posted by IS showed a close-up of some 20 bodies, but then panned out to show scores more.
Other shots showed men barefoot and dressed only in their underwear walking in line with their hands on their head in surrender, escorted by IS gunmen who chanted “Islamic State forever.”
Tabqa was the last position in Raqqa province to fall to the group, who now control a vast swathe of north-east Syria and Iraq.
A UN-mandated inquiry has charged that public executions, amputations, lashings and mock crucifixions have become a regular fixture in IS-controlled areas of Syria.
The Syrian government launched air strikes of its own on Thursday, killing six IS leaders, the Observatory said, but Washington has baulked at cooperating with Damascus against the group.
On Thursday, Obama reiterated the stance, saying: "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."
UN peacekeepers held
The al-Nusra Front, backed by other rebels, detained 43 Fijian peacekeepers on the Golan Heights on Thursday, a day after their capture of the sole crossing over the UN-patrolled armistice line to the Israeli-occupied sector of the plateau.
"43 peacekeepers from the UN Disengagement Observer Force were detained early this morning by an armed group in the vicinity of Quneitra," a UN statement said.
The 43 peacekeepers from Fiji were forced to surrender their weapons and taken hostage, but 81 Filipino blue helmets "held their ground" and refused to disarm, the Philippine defence department said.
It said the Filipino peacekeepers were being surrounded by the gunmen in a stand-off.
The UN Security Council and the US separately condemned the action and demanded the "unconditional and immediate release" of the peacekeepers, a statement said.
Peacekeepers were detained twice last year before being released safely.
The Philippines has said it will repatriate its 331-strong contingent, for security reasons, mirroring previous moves by Australia, Croatia and Japan.
Washington has been weighing both aid drops and air strikes in Iraq to help residents of a Shiite Turkmen town besieged by IS since early June, US officials said on Wednesday.
"It could be a humanitarian operation. It could be a military operation. It could be both," said a US defence official on condition of anonymity.
UN Iraq envoy Nickolay Mladenov has called for an urgent effort to help Amerli, saying residents face a "possible massacre" if the town is overrun.
The Washington Post reported Thursday that at least four Western hostages held by IS in Syria, including the murdered Foley, were waterboarded in the early part of their captivity.
Waterboarding, which was used by the CIA during interrogations of suspected terrorists after the September 11, 2001 attacks, is a widely condemned form of torture that simulates drowning.