President Barack Obama is relying on Middle East allies including Saudi Arabia as linchpins in escalating the offensive against Islamic State extremists with airstrikes on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border.
In a speech to the nation last night, the president said the U.S. would be joined by a broad coalition of partners for a “relentless effort” against the group. No American ground combat troops will be needed, he said, as American airpower will support local forces, primarily Iraqis and select members of the Syrian opposition.
“American power can make a decisive difference, but we cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves, nor can we take the place of Arab partners in securing their region,” Obama said in an address from the White House.
After winning office on a pledge to end the war in Iraq, Obama is reasserting U.S. military power in the region to combat a Sunni extremist group that has swept from Syria deep into Iraq with a campaign of terror that has included the beheading of two U.S. journalists. The group’s recent victories over Iraqi forces in the past few months galvanized public fears of a rising terrorist threat and stirred demands from lawmakers that Obama articulate a plan for dealing with it.
Obama is moving to confront a new terrorist threat as the nation observes the 13th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. The president and first lady Michelle Obama, joined by Vice President Joe Biden, observed a moment of silence on the South Lawn of the White House today to mark the time that the first hijacked plane hit the World Trade Center in New York. They later attended a ceremony at the Pentagon, which was hit by a third of four airliners hijacked by al-Qaeda terrorists.
A total of 2,977 people were killed in New York, at the Pentagon and in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
“They sought to break our spirit and prove to the world that their power to destroy was greater than our power to persevere,” Obama said in Pentagon remarks. “No matter what comes our way, America will always come out stronger.”
Obama’s strategy against Islamic State turns on bolstering training and aid for vetted members of the Syrian opposition who are rivals to extremist group in Syria’s civil war.
The White House has asked Congress to authorize the Defense Department to begin training and equipping the rebel forces, part of a $500 million program that Obama first proposed in June.
While Obama didn’t identify members of the coalition or specify what they would do, an administration official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity said the U.S. has a commitment from Saudi Arabia to host the training and provide other support to the effort.
Obama talked with Saudi King Abdullah by telephone yesterday, and Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in the kingdom today to meet with foreign ministers from Persian Gulf Arab nations, Jordan, Egypt and Turkey.
The coalition Obama described is fraught with tensions and divergent interests, said Brian Katulis, a Middle East and terrorism analyst at the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based research center with close ties to the Obama administration.
“It is a strategy heavily dependent on partners in the region, many of whom are at odds with one another and have been incapable of achieving progress without us to date,” Katulis said.
Obama for the first time said he won’t hesitate to hit Islamic State positions inside Syria, a year after he backed away from authorizing airstrikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
The administration is sorting through bombing targets in Syria and the military is ready to launch strikes, U.S. officials said. In Iraq, airstrikes will increase as part of a broader campaign to support Iraqi and Kurdish forces in their fight against the Islamic State.
“What the president recognized is that we have to use our, sort of, military advantages, and they’re airpower, intelligence, drone operations, very targeted special operations,” Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said on MSNBC today. U.S ground forces can win quick, big victories, he said, “but then you’re in the midst of a political and insurgency nightmare, which happened in Iraq, so I think he’s very conscious of that.”
Another 475 U.S. troops will deploy to Iraq, Obama said, bringing to 1,600 the U.S. military presence in the country. The new troops will assist Iraqis and Kurds with training, intelligence and equipment, he said.
Islamic fighters from the al-Qaida group in the Levant, Al-Nusra Front, carry a movement's banner bearing a drawing of Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock mosque with the Arabic slogan: "We fight in Syria... and our eyes are on Jerusalem" as they parade at the Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp, south of Damascus, to denounce Israels military offensive on the Gaza Strip, on July 28, 2014.
Obama said the offensive fits within a strategy the U.S. has pursued in recent years against al-Qaeda affiliates in places such as Yemen and Somalia, where drones and other aircraft are the main U.S. military tools, combined with increased aid for government forces that carry out the ground fight.
The president is reversing course on the role of the Syrian opposition. Gary Samore, a former Obama national security official, said Obama had been reluctant during deliberations on Syria to directly sponsor moderate rebels that he considered unlikely to prevail on the battlefield. Obama worried that would raise the risk of pressure for U.S. military involvement to protect them, he said.
In a New York Times interview last month, he dismissed the opposition as a collection of “of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth” and said that the notion that arming them would have made a difference has “always been a fantasy.”
The Islamic State’s rapid sweep across Iraq and fears stoked by the videotaped beheadings “really changed Obama’s whole calculation,” said Samore, now executive director of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Obama said he has the authority he needs for his strategy, including expanded airstrikes against Islamic State. The Obama aide who briefed reporters said the authority stems from a congressional resolution authorizing the use of force passed shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks.
“But I believe we are strongest as a nation when the President and Congress work together,” he said. “So I welcome congressional support for this effort in order to show the world that Americans are united in confronting this danger.”
Congressional leaders from both parties indicated support for using the U.S. military to train and advise Iraqi security forces and vetted Syrian rebel groups, though House Speaker John Boehner last night faulted Obama for failing to embrace the urgency of the threat.
While the president “has finally begun to make the case the nation has needed him to make,” Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said in an e-mailed statement, he “appears to view the effort against ISIL as an isolated 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.”
ISIL and ISIS are alternative acronyms for Islamic State.
Even some of the president’s partisan allies offered implicit criticism that Obama had been slow to take decisive action.
“For the last several years, we have erred on the side of inaction, and that has been costly,” said Sandy Berger, national security adviser under former President Bill Clinton, on Bloomberg Television. He applauded Obama for “moving forward on the side of action.”
Obama’s speech was “a declaration of war against ISIS, Obama style,” said Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East policy official who served in Democratic and Republican administrations. “A risk-averse president was dragged to become risk-ready by a quasi-terrorist state entity that could over time threaten the U.S. homeland.”