The United States tripled its estimate for the number of Islamic State fighters as it geared up Thursday for a “more aggressive” air campaign, and Arab nations rallied behind President Barack Obama’s nascent coalition against the jihadists.
Amid intense diplomatic efforts by US Secretary of State John Kerry, 10 key Middle Eastern governments agreed to back Obama’s newly announced campaign against the Islamic State terror group, which has conquered large swaths of Syria and Iraq.
In an official document, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Sunni states in the Persian Gulf formally joined Obama’s coalition, pledging to stanch the terror group’s funding and possibly even contribute directly to the war effort.
The signatories of the document, which is known as the Jeddah Communique, also include Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In it, the Arab countries pledge to staunch sources of funding for the Islamic State, as well as stem the flow of foreign fighters to the group.
The 10 states “agreed to do their share in the comprehensive fight” against Islamic State, said a statement after a meeting Thursday between Kerry and his Arab counterparts.
The states said they would be “as appropriate, joining in the many aspects of a coordinated military campaign,” possibly even participating in it directly.
The document was signed after a flurry of diplomatic efforts by Kerry, who was in Jeddah to secure the support of the Arab states — many of which have supplied Syrian rebel groups fighting against Bashar Assad, including extremist ones, with weapons and cash in recent years.
Iran and its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, have been aiding Assad’s forces in their fight against the Islamic State and other groups.
As the Arab states rallied behind Washington, the Central Intelligence Agency said said the Islamic State now has about 20,000 to 31,500 fighters on the ground in Iraq and Syria, much higher than a previous estimate of 10,000.
“This new total reflects an increase in members because of stronger recruitment since June following battlefield successes and the declaration of a caliphate, greater battlefield activity, and additional intelligence,” CIA spokesman Ryan Trapani said.
Meanwhile early Friday, French President Francois Hollande was on his way to Baghdad, where he will meet his Iraqi counterpart Fuad Masum in a show of support.
France has said it is prepared to participate in air strikes against the militants in Iraq “if necessary,” and hosts an international conference on Iraq on September 15.
Kerry held talks with counterparts from 10 Arab nations and Turkey hours after Obama outlined his new strategy to confront the jihadists in a prime-time television address.
Steeling his nation for another foreign conflict, Obama pledged to expand US military operations against IS, a radical Islamist group that has seized a swath of Iraq and Syria and committed horrifying atrocities.
“Our objective is clear: we will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy,” Obama said, using an alternative acronym for the group.
“I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq.”
Obama announced the dispatch of another 475 military personnel to help train Iraqi forces to take on the Islamic State, bringing the total number of US troops in the country to 1,600.
But he made clear in the 14-minute address that the campaign will not be a repeat of the exhausting ground wars fought by US troops in the past decade.
“I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Obama said, speaking on the eve of the anniversary of the September 11 attacks in 2001.
“It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil.”
Saudi key to effort
Washington is instead looking to empower partners on the ground like the Iraqi forces, Kurdish fighters and Syrian rebels, to fill in territory opened up by US air power.
Key to that strategy will be improving the effectiveness of Syrian rebels, and Obama called on Congress to swiftly authorize an operation to train and equip moderate Syrian fighters.
Kerry secured crucial backing for the US campaign in Jeddah, meeting with his counterparts from the oil-rich Gulf monarchies, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and NATO member Turkey.
“Many of the countries are already taking action against ISIL,” a State Department official said prior to the visit.
“But the trip by the secretary is going to broaden the coalition and bring it into more focus and intensify the lines of effort.”
The official said Saudi Arabia would be especially important to the effort “because of their size and economic importance but also because of their religious significance with Sunnis.”
The “train and equip program” for Syria’s rebels would be a particular talking point with the Saudis, the official added.