NEWPORT, Wales (CBS News/CBSDC/AP) — Faced with a mounting militant threat in the Middle East, President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron declared Thursday that their nations will “not be cowed” by extremists who have killed two American journalists.
“We will be more forthright in the defense of our values, not least because a world of greater freedom is a fundamental part of how we keep our people safe,” the leaders wrote in a joint editorial in the Times of London.
Their comments come as world leaders gather at a golf resort in Wales for a high-stakes NATO summit.
The crisis in Ukraine would dominate a normal NATO meeting, but as CBS News correspondent Major Garrett reports, the emerging threat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has rattled alliance members and upset the official agenda. Discussions of ISIS will dominate on the sidelines of the summit.
The group, which now calls itself simply the Islamic State, has claimed responsibility for murdering two American journalists, releasing gruesome videos of their beheadings. Both the U.S. and Britain are deeply concerned about the potential threat to their homelands that could come from the foreign fighters who have joined the group.
Cameron on Monday proposed new laws that would give police the power to seize the passports of Britons suspected of having traveled abroad to fight with terrorist groups.
Obama and Cameron appear to suggest that NATO should play a role in containing the militants, but were not specific in what action they would seek from the alliance.
Obama has come under pressure at home to iterate a clear strategy to counter ISIS, whose militants have faced American airstrikes in Iraq. The group’s leadership is believed to be located across the border in Syria, and Obama conceded last week that to date, his administration had no clear policy on how to counter the terrorists.
“The president is clearly grappling with not just what our strategy is but what our overall commitment will be to engaging this group,” said CBS News national security analyst Juan Zarate. “If he commits fully to the destruction of this group, in many ways that would be a declaration of war yet again in the heart of the Middle East, something that this president’s administration might find politically unpalatable and difficult to defend.”
Former CIA deputy director Mike Morell says finding a way to counter ISIS inside Syria must be a part of any strategy the U.S. pursues against the group, but any action taken by Obama inside Syria comes with the added complication of at least appearing to help another foe of the United States.
“That’s the much more difficult problem because we also need, in addition to airstrikes, we need a military on the ground in Syria to take these guys on,” Morell, now a CBS News consultant, said Wednesday on “CBS This Morning.”
“The only military around is [Syrian President Bashar] Assad’s military, and as you know, we’re fighting Assad as well.”
Obama has repeatedly called for Assad, who has been accused of using chemical weapons against his own people, to step down amid more than three years of violence.
While Morell said the best course of action would be to persuade Russia and Iraq to pressure Assad to leave office and work with new leadership in Syria who could help fight ISIS, that may not be realistic. Assad remains popular among many Syrians, and there’s no reason to think he’ll be leaving his office anytime soon.
“If that doesn’t work, I think we need to rethink our strategy vis-à-vis Assad, yes,” Morell said.
Obama and Cameron visited students at a local school in Wales Thursday morning before they were to join their counterparts from France, Germany and Italy to discuss the crisis in Ukraine. New Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was also to join the discussion in a show of Western solidarity with his embattled nation.
Ukraine and Russia have been locked in a standoff for months, with pro-Moscow forces stirring instability in eastern Ukrainian cities. On the eve of the NATO summit, Russia and Ukraine said they were working on a deal to halt the fighting, but Western leaders expressed skepticism – noting it wasn’t the first attempt to end the deadly conflict.
NATO leaders are expected to agree this week on the creation of a rapid response force that would set up in nations in the alliance’s eastern flank to serve as a deterrent to Russia. Baltic nations and others in the region fear Moscow could set its sights on their borders next.
“We must use our military to ensure a persistent presence in Eastern Europe, making clear to Russia that we will always uphold our Article 5 commitments to collective self-defense,” Mr. Obama and Cameron wrote.
Under Article 5 of the NATO charter, an attack on one member state is viewed as an attack on the whole alliance. Mr. Obama reiterated his support for that principle Wednesday during a visit to Estonia, one of the newer NATO members set on edge by Russia’s provocations.
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