President Barack Obama on Wednesday announced a broader war against the Islamic State, pledging a U.S.-led coalition to destroy the militants “wherever they exist” as he escalated U.S. involvement in an armed conflict he spent years trying to avoid.
He authorized airstrikes inside Syria, though he did not detail his plans in his speech to the nation. He renewed a quest to arm and train Syrian rebels. He escalated the mission of existing U.S. airstrikes inside Iraq, dispatched more troops there and pledged new aid to allies in the region.
“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,” he said from the White House.
“Our objective is clear: We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy,” Obama said of the Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS.
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The campaign in Syria and wider strikes in Iraq would dramatically broaden what had been a limited U.S. mission to help refugees threatened by the Islamic State inside Iraq. While signaling airstrikes in Syria, Obama said he also would expand airstrikes in Iraq, “beyond protecting our own people and humanitarian missions, so that we’re hitting ISIL targets as Iraqi forces go on offense.”
Obama also renewed his request to Congress to arm and train moderate Syrian rebel forces to counter the militants inside Syria. Senior administration officials said Saudi Arabia has offered to host the training. The House of Representatives planned to vote on the $500 million request next week, while the Senate was weighing how or when to take it up.
He said he was ordering 475 more American troops to Iraq, bringing to 1,600 the number of U.S. troops who are advising Iraqi forces at joint operations centers in Baghdad and Irbil. But he stressed anew that he would not commit U.S. combat troops and would instead use U.S. air power to help on-the-ground fighting by other forces.
“I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Obama, who campaigned in 2008 vowing to end the war in Iraq. “It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil.”
Despite Obama’s pledge, Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he expected a years-long effort that will involve troops on the ground, in the form of commando raids and forward air observers.
“But we have no choice,” Nelson said. “This is a vicious, diabolical group that must be stopped.”
Officials, who have cautioned that defeating the Islamic State could take years, gave no timetable on when Syrian strikes might occur, saying the U.S. would not “telegraph” its intent.
Obama likened the approach to fighting the militant group by using targeted military airstrikes to support other countries’ ground troops to “one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.”
House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said Obama “had begun to make the case,” but he called it a “cause for concern” that Obama viewed the effort as a counterterrorism campaign “rather than as what it must be: an all-out effort to destroy an enemy that has declared a holy war against America.”
“After 13 years of war since 9/11, the decision by the president to take on a new fight against this enemy was not an easy one,” Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said earlier Wednesday in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations.
Obama explained the need to change course, saying that while the Islamic State does not yet threaten the U.S. homeland, it is a growing threat to the Mideast, Europe, and potentially the U.S.
“If left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region, including to the United States,” he said. “Our intelligence community believes that thousands of foreigners — including Europeans and some Americans — have joined them in Syria and Iraq. Trained and battle-hardened, these fighters could try to return to their home countries and carry out deadly attacks.”
In Baghdad, Secretary of State John Kerry met Wednesday with new Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi, at the forefront of the fight.
“We stand by Iraq as it continues to build a government that meets the needs of each of Iraq’s diverse communities, and we stand by them as they fight to overcome the single greatest threat that their government, their families, and their neighbors face today,” Kerry said.
Kerry announced that the U.S. is providing another $48 million in humanitarian aid from non-governmental organizations to help the nearly 2 million refugees in Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.
Polls show a majority of voters believe the U.S. taking military action against the Islamic State is in the nation’s interest, a significant increase since last year when the U.S. was considering similar action against Syria’s government after its reported use of chemical weapons.
Support for action has grown since the Islamic State beheaded two American journalists, acts videotaped and released to the world.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney, who played a central role in the decision to invade Iraq in 2003, urged Obama Wednesday to be more aggressive. “Our president must understand we are at war and that we must do what it takes, for as long as it takes, to win,” he said.
The U.S. began airstrikes in Iraq on Aug. 8 to protect U.S. personnel and facilities, to support humanitarian efforts and to back Iraqi forces. As of Wednesday, it had conducted a total of 154 strikes.
The U.S. military also has conducted two humanitarian operations of 32 air drops of food and supplies in Iraq — near Mount Sinjar and near Amirli.
Obama had long sought to minimize U.S. involvement in Syria, where a civil war pits President Bashar Assad’s Iran-backed forces against the Islamic State and weaker insurgent groups, including al-Qaida’s affiliate, the Nusra Front. Most of the groups also are fighting the Islamic State.
But Obama was forced to reconsider after an acknowledgment by top U.S. officials that the Islamic State can’t be crushed without addressing its presence in Syria. He authorized the first U.S. surveillance flights of Islamic State targets in Syria and launched an effort to build an international coalition to fight the group through military, humanitarian and other means.
Senior administration officials insisted the strikes would not boost Assad because he has little sway in the Islamic State strongholds in Syria.
While Obama did not seek congressional approval for the expanding airstrikes, he did ask Congress to act on his standing request for lethal aid to arm moderate Syrian rebels.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, interrupted a series of floor votes Wednesday to announce that Obama’s request would be included in a budget bill that lawmakers are to vote on to keep the federal government operating beyond Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.
The vote was supposed to occur Thursday, but McCarthy announced that it would be postponed until next week because lawmakers are scheduled to receive a closed-door briefing from White House officials Thursday.
Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he was pleased that Obama is seeking congressional approval.
“With the beheadings, I think that was a game-changer for a lot of Americans,” Engel said. “This plan does not put American boots on the ground. It does all the things that we said needed to be done. And it has to be done quickly. . . . Every single day, they’re getting bigger, they’re getting stronger and they’re acting like a government. They’re controlling things, they’re taxing, they’re selling oil. Now is the time to stop them.”
An exasperated Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he supports including Obama’s request in the Senate budget bill but worries that the plan might be too little, too late.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved such a plan in May 2013 on a 15-3 vote.
“It should have been done a year and a half ago,” Corker said. “Would it have worked much better a year and a half ago? Yes.”