Obama orders air campaign against Islamic State in Syria, Iraq
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Obama orders air campaign against Islamic State in Syria, Iraq

In major escalation of military involvement in region, president lays out strategy against terror group, without US boots on the ground

President Barack Obama addresses the nation from the Cross Hall in the White House, ordering the United States into a broad military campaign to “degrade and ultimately destroy” militants in two volatile Middle East nations, authorizing airstrikes inside Syria for the first time, as well as an expansion of strikes in Iraq. (photo credit: AP Photo/Saul Loeb, Pool)
President Barack Obama addresses the nation from the Cross Hall in the White House, ordering the United States into a broad military campaign to “degrade and ultimately destroy” militants in two volatile Middle East nations, authorizing airstrikes inside Syria for the first time, as well as an expansion of strikes in Iraq. (photo credit: AP Photo/Saul Loeb, Pool)

America will lead a broad coalition to roll back the Islamic State terrorist group, promised US President Barack Obama in a much-anticipated televised address Wednesday night.

Obama called for a “systematic campaign of air strikes, hitting IS targets as Iraqi forces go on the offensive.” He said American bombers would not hesitate to hit IS in Syria as well as Iraq.

The US will “degrade and ultimately destroy” the terrorist group, Obama pledged, on the eve of the 13th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Another 475 American soldiers will be sent to Iraq, he said, to train Iraqi forces, provide intelligence, and offer logistical support.

Obama also said America would work to cut off IS’s flow of fighters and money, as well as provide humanitarian assistance to Iraqis threatened by the Islamic State.

“ISIL leaders have threatened America and our allies,” he said, using another abbreviation for the Islamic State.

America has conducted more than 150 strikes in Iraq, said Obama, saving the lives of “thousands of innocent men, women, and children,” while killing IS fighters.

But he insisted Americans that US combat troops will not be sent to fight on foreign soil as part of the operation.

The speech marked a major US escalation, despite Obama having devoted much of his presidency to pulling America out of wars in the Middle East and avoiding new foreign entanglements.

“This counter-terrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground,” Obama said.

“Tonight, with a new Iraqi government in place, and following consultations with allies abroad and Congress at home, I can announce that America will lead a broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat.”

The President styled the new US operation as an extension of long-running counter-terrorism strategies in Yemen and Somalia, where air power and occasional special forces missions have targeted Islamic radical groups.

He also made a clear distinction between the huge land wars launched by his predecessor George W. Bush, in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, 13 years ago on Thursday.

“I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil,” he said.

Earlier, Obama spoke to Saudi King Abdullah, underlining Riyadh’s crucial role in an anti-IS front, and reached out to lawmakers to seek Congressional support for his plans.

In this image made through a window of the Oval Office, President Barack Obama speaks on the phone to Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah from his desk at the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2014, ahead of his address to the nation tonight regarding Iraq and Islamic State group militants. (photo credit: AP/Charles Dharapak)
In this image made through a window of the Oval Office, President Barack Obama speaks on the phone to Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah from his desk at the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2014, ahead of his address to the nation tonight regarding Iraq and Islamic State group militants. (photo credit: AP/Charles Dharapak)

France offered Obama a well-timed boost, saying it was prepared to join an already launched US air campaign against IS targets in Iraq if necessary.

In Iraq, meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry promised that the country’s armed forces, some of which fled when IS marched into western Sunni districts, would be “reconstituted and trained and worked on.”

Boost for Syrian rebels

Obama and Abdullah “agreed on the need for increased training and equipping of the moderate Syrian opposition,” the White House said in a statement.

“Both leaders agreed that a stronger Syrian opposition is essential to confronting extremists like ISIL as well as the Assad regime, which has lost all legitimacy.”

The call represented a potentially significant development in the crisis, as Obama for months opposed sending lethal weapons into the Syrian civil war, citing the difficulty of identifying true moderates and fearing they could end up in the hands of extremists.

In a related development, Obama also freed up $25 million to equip Iraqi government and Kurdish troops to fight IS.

Though Obama has told Americans he will not send ground troops back into combat, he has not ruled out sending US trainers to help prepare Iraqi forces — stood up at the cost of billions of US taxpayer dollars after the 2003 US invasion.

Kerry praised the new Iraqi government of Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, which Washington says has the potential to offer the “inclusive” rule across sectarian divides that the former administration of Nuri al-Maliki failed to provide.

But the sectarian stew facing Abadi was underlined when bombs killed 19 people in Baghdad during Kerry’s visit.

The Pentagon said the US military had now conducted 154 strikes against IS in Iraq, and destroyed 212 targets, including armed vehicles and weapons systems.

Hawkish public

The plan Obama laid out on Wednesday will be open-ended and the campaign could outlast his presidency, which ends in January 2017.

“I think the American people need to expect that this is something that will require a sustained commitment,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.

The address came at a poignant time — on the eve of the 13th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, when Islamic radicalism on a mass scale scorched the US homeland for the first time.

Obama, who has seen his personal approval ratings and public confidence in his foreign policy tumble, may seek to exploit a seam of increasingly hawkish public opinion on Syria.

Islamic State fighters near the border between Syria and Iraq (screen capture: YouTube screen/Vice)
Islamic State fighters near the border between Syria and Iraq (screen capture: YouTube screen/Vice)

A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll suggests the US public was increasingly hawkish about IS, with two-thirds of those asked saying they backed military operations against the group.

The White House insists that IS, despite having beheaded two US journalists, does not yet pose an imminent threat to the US homeland.

But officials worry the group could eventually send some of its legions of foreign fighters, armed with Western passports, to stage attacks in America.

Obama previewed his speech in a meeting with top congressional leaders on Tuesday, and then Wednesday huddled with defense and intelligence chiefs in the White House Situation Room.

Officials said he believes he has sufficient authority to carry out his new strategy without asking Congress for a new war authorization.

But he wants lawmakers to vote on $500 million in funding for Syrian rebels — which he first requested in June — before they leave town soon ahead of November’s mid-term elections.

Republicans have used Obama’s public deliberation over what to do about IS to drive a narrative that the president is weak and disengaged.

“Our president must understand we are at war and that we must do what it takes, for as long as it takes, to win,” hawkish former vice president Dick Cheney said Wednesday.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, praised Obama for acknowledging the “grave and growing threat” that Islamic extremists pose, but he said Obama was coming to that conclusion far too late.

“He has finally begun to make the case the nation has needed him to make for quite some time: that destroying this terrorist threat requires decisive action and must be the highest priority for the United States and other nations of the free world,” Boehner said.

As if to answer the criticism that he has been too cautious, Obama declared of his plan: “This is American leadership at its best.”

Arming moderate rebels

Obama is seeking authorization from Congress for a Pentagon-led effort to train and arm more moderate elements of the Syrian opposition. Even before his remarks, congressional leaders were grappling with whether to support that request and if so, how to get such a measure through the fractured legislature before the November elections.

The White House wants Congress to include the authorization in a temporary funding measure lawmakers are expected to vote on before adjourning later this month. Republicans have made no commitment to support the request and the House GOP has so far not included the measure in the funding legislation.

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the Nevada Democrat might opt to seek separate legislation.

While the CIA currently runs a small program to arm the rebels, the new version would be more robust. Obama asked Congress earlier this year to approve a $500 million program to expand the effort and put it under Pentagon control, but the request stalled on Capitol Hill.

Some of Obama’s own advisers, including former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, pressed him to arm the rebels early in their fight against Assad. But Obama resisted, arguing that there was too much uncertainty about the composition of the rebel forces. He also expressed concern about adding more firepower to an already bloody civil war.

The White House announced Wednesday that it was also providing $25 million in immediate military assistance to the Iraqi government as part of efforts to combat the Islamic State.

The Treasury Department will also step up efforts to undermine the Islamic State group’s finances. David Cohen, Treasury’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, wrote in a blog post that the US would be working with other countries, especially Gulf states, to cut off the group’s external funding networks and its access to the global financial system.

The US has been pressing allies in Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere to help with efforts to degrade the terror group.

France’s foreign minister said Wednesday that his country was ready to take part in airstrikes against extremist fighters in Iraq if needed. And the German government announced that it was sending assault rifles, ammunition, anti-tank weapons and armored vehicles to Kurdish forces in Iraq fighting, breaking with Berlin’s previous reluctance to send weapons into conflicts.

Kerry was also scheduled to attend a conference with Arab leaders Thursday to discuss their role in confronting the militants.

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