(CNN) — Top U.S. military leadership has approved a plan to strike ISIS targets inside Syria, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told a House panel Thursday.
Hagel said President Obama was briefed on those plans, approved by Hagel and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during his visit to U.S. Central Command on Wednesday. Obama has not signed off on those plans yet, CNN has learned.
While ISIS continues spreading its radical Islamist rule in Syria and Iraq, a slew of U.S. lawmakers are debating the best way to stop them.
On Wednesday, the House approved Obama’s plan to arm and train Syrian rebels. The House then tacked that onto a government spending bill that would allow leaders to continue funding the U.S. government and sent it to the Senate. On Thursday, the Senate will be voting on that whole package, fueling criticism that lawmakers are avoiding a separate vote on arming the Syrian rebels.
Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, told CNN’s “New Day” she had serious concerns.
“I’m going to vote for the continuing resolution because I don’t want government to shut down,” she said. “Right now, the Senate isn’t even scheduled to have a separate vote on the Syrian resolution, and that’s just plain wrong.”
Meanwhile, the terror group, which refers to itself as the “Islamic State,” has captured 16 predominantly Kurdish villages in northern Syria over the past 24 hours, a Syrian opposition group said Thursday.
ISIS used artillery and tanks against the villages along the Syria-Turkey border, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The U.S. military has everything it needs to strike ISIS inside Syria and is waiting on the President’s authorization to move forward, U.S. military officials told CNN on Thursday.
For weeks, intelligence and military targeting specialists have been working around the clock on a list of targets. The list is expected to be shown to Obama one more time. An analysis of the risks of bombing inside Syria will be included, as well as an assessment of how the destruction of the targets could degrade ISIS, officials said.
It is most likely that the President will get a broad description of the list, with some analysis of what would be accomplished. Presidents generally do not review each and every target before a strike. General guidance is given, and then the military selects the time, date and place after the President makes the political decision to proceed.
Obama is “actively” reviewing options and has “offered guidance” to the Department of Defense about the target sets that he’s reviewed, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said last week. But Earnest said that Obama is not signing off on each strike.
Some Democrats leery of arming rebels
Even though some senators expect Obama’s plan to pass in the Democrat-controlled chamber, the President could see tough challenges from his own party.
“I think it’s very hard to sort out the moderate rebels from the extremists and I have a real worry that once we send these rebels back into the battle space there is very little we can do to prevent them from locking arms with al Qaeda or elements of ISIS,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut.
But Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri and a member of the Armed Services Committee, said the U.S. intelligence community will play an important role in vetting the rebels.
She also said training could take up to a year before arms are provided.
“All of those people criticizing this choice, I have yet to hear their better idea,” McCaskill said.
Sen. Collins said she’s worried that it will be difficult to vet the “so-called moderate Syrian opposition.”
“We spent billions of dollars and a decade training the Iraqi security forces. And look what happened when they were confronted with the ISIS threat — they basically cut and run, with the exception of the Kurdish forces in the north.”
British imams call ISIS ‘un-Islamic fanatics’
While the U.S. debates its role, dozens of imams from across the United Kingdom signed an open letter, published in British newspaper The Independent, calling for ISIS to release Alan Henning. He is the latest British hostage that ISIS has threatened to kill.
If the aid worker who went to Syria to help people is not released, ISIS will be committing the “worst condemnable sin” against Islam, they write.
The letter condemns the terror group, calling ISIS “un-Islamic fanatics.”
“This is not Jihad,” it read, “it is a war against all humanity.”
Three years of waiting
If the United States ends up arming Syrian rebels, it would come after three years of clamoring by opposition forces.
Syrian rebels started asking the West for weapons in 2011, after peaceful political protests led to a deadly crackdown by Bashar Al-Assad’s government forces. It spiraled into an armed uprising and a civil war that has killed more than 190,000 Syrians over the past three years.
The United States has provided $2.9 billion in humanitarian aid to Syria, but has stopped short of giving Syrian rebels weapons.
The difference now? ISIS, its bloody takeover of stretches of Iraq and Syria, and its threat to Americans.
A former chief of staff for the rebel Free Syrian Army is now more concerned about ISIS than the Syrian regime.
“At this time, it is more dangerous than the regime itself,” Gen. Salim Idriss told CNN’s Chris Cuomo.
Idriss acknowledged there are problems among rebel forces — which is why U.S. training would help, he said.
“They are not unified, not organized, not working according to chain of command and control,” he said. “We would like now to organize them with the help of our friends in the international community to build a kind of regular army to get better results fighting the regime and other extremist groups in Syria.”
Idriss said the Free Syrian Army now has about 4,000 to 5,000 “well-trained fighters” in the country.
“And if we are going to train about 5,000 more, the whole number of the moderate fighters in the FSA will be ready and capable of fighting against ISIS.”
Obama: No boots on the ground in Iraq
Obama reiterated Wednesday that the United States will not send combat troops back to Iraq.
“As your commander in chief, I will not commit you and the rest of our armed forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq,” Obama told troops Wednesday at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida.
“The American forces that have been deployed to Iraq do not and will not have a combat mission. They will support Iraqi forces on the ground as they fight for their own country against these terrorists.”
On Thursday, Secretary of State John Kerry will testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will testify before the House Armed Services Committee.
Iraq: More than 1,000 soldiers MIA from June attack
Just as in Syria, the crisis in Iraq continues to unfold.
Iraq’s Human Rights Ministry said Thursday that 1,095 Iraqi soldiers still are missing after an ISIS attack in June on a military base formerly known as Camp Speicher.
ISIS says it killed 1,700 Iraqi troops in the attack. The Iraqi government hasn’t released a number of those killed; Human Rights Watch says ISIS executed hundreds of soldiers.