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Obama says violence was ‘an attack on the civilized world’

President Obama spoke Sunday at the G20 summit in Antalya, Turkey.Jonathan Ernst/REUTERS

ANTALYA, Turkey — President Barack Obama on Sunday sought to stoke in U.S. allies a new sense of urgency in the fight against the Islamic State, even as his top aides made clear that Friday's horrific attacks in Paris would not alter the president's reluctance to dramatically escalate his campaign against the terror group.

Meeting with world leaders in Turkey less than 48 hours after gunmen and suicide bombers killed at least 129 people in simultaneous attacks across Paris, Obama vowed to stand with the French authorities as they hunt down the terrorists, calling the spasms of violence in the center of the city "an attack on the civilized world."


White House officials said Obama agreed wholeheartedly with President François Hollande of France that the mass killings in Paris were an "act of war" and they promised that the United States would intensify the military campaign against the Islamic State even as they accelerate their pursuit of a diplomatic solution to the civil war raging inside Syria.

Yet the highly emotional statements from France — in which Hollande promised to be "merciless" and the prime minister, Manuel Valls, vowed to "annihilate the enemies of the republic" — appeared to do little to fundamentally change how Obama or his national security team views the high costs of significantly widening the role of the U.S. military in Iraq and Syria.

While Obama was already moving to intensify bombing and the targeting of Islamic State leaders, he still does not appear ready to question the underlying, incremental approach.

Senior national security advisers said the president remained steadfastly opposed to a large-scale ground operation in Iraq and Syria. And even as he met with world leaders, aides insisted that the Americans had not underestimated the ability of the Islamic State to project its terror beyond that region.


In briefings with reporters in Turkey and in a series of back-to-back appearances Sunday morning television programs, Benjamin J. Rhodes, the president's deputy national security adviser, said the United States would work with France and other allies to "intensify their efforts" against the Islamic State — but only within limits.

"We don't believe U.S. troops are the answer to the problem," Rhodes told reporters at the Group of 20 meetings here. "The further introduction of U.S. troops to fully re-engage in ground combat in the Middle East is not the way to deal with this challenge."

Obama's arrival at the G-20 summit meeting Sunday morning forced him and his advisers to spend the day carefully balancing two competing interests: their desire to support France at an extraordinarily difficult moment, while at the same time standing firm in their defense of Obama's basic strategy for waging war against terrorists.

Aides said the president discussed the need for more cooperation with the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, especially along the border between Turkey and Syria. And the last-minute addition of a meeting between Obama and King Salman of Saudi Arabia was described as an effort to urge more from the kingdom.

White House officials on Sunday, however, rejected any notion that the administration had underestimated the threat posed by the Islamic State several years ago. And they defended Obama's comment last week that the terrorist group had been "contained" in recent months by the United States and its coalition in Iraq and Syria.


That comment by Obama came in an interview with ABC News just hours before the Paris attacks, which seemed to dramatically demonstrate that the group was not contained within the borders of Syria and Iraq.

"A year ago, we saw them on the march in both Iraq and Syria, taking more and more population centers," Rhodes said on "This Week" on ABC News. "The fact is we have been able to stop that geographic advance and take back significant amounts of territory in both northern Iraq and northern Syria."

A senior U.S. defense official said the military already has a range of options prepared after 18 months of near continual debate within the administration about how to handle the Islamic State. The options range from substantive ground operations — which no one appears to be seriously considering at this point — to ramping up the air war or increasing the number of special operations troops already committed to Syria by the administration.

The Pentagon is also working out ways to accommodate a more robust French role in the air campaign, the official said, though it was not yet certain what course of action France had decided upon. The administration also wants to make sure it has thought through the impact that any new military action would have on the diplomatic efforts to open a peace process that Secretary of State John Kerry is leading.

"It's a matter of making sure it's all been thought out," added the defense official, who was granted anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic matters. "If it looks like a shift in our posture would be beneficial in terms of diplomacy, or would have a negative impact, that is something that the administration wants to consider."


A senior administration official involved in the debate over how to counter the Islamic State said in a conversation over the weekend that while the president had declared the mission to "degrade and defeat" the Islamic State, "what we had in essence was a containment policy." It was based on Obama's longtime belief that any effort to counter the Islamic State's ideology had to be led by Sunni Muslim states, with backup from the United States for the "unique capabilities" it can offer: Mostly air support and intelligence.

Yet Obama's strategy was also based on intelligence assessments that the Islamic State was overextended, that it was vulnerable to a cutoff in its oil and black-market revenues, and that in the long war against extremism there was still time to bolster the most capable local forces and bring Arab states to the fight.