Opening a new military front in the Middle East, President Barack Obama authorized U.S. airstrikes inside Syria for the first time Wednesday night, along with expanded strikes in Iraq as part of “a steady, relentless effort” to root out Islamic State extremists and their spreading reign of terror.
“We will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are,” Obama declared in a prime-time address to the nation from the White House. “This is a core principle of my presidency: If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.”
Obama announced that he was dispatching nearly 500 more U.S. troops to advise and assist Iraqi security forces, as well as conduct intelligence and reconnaissance flights, bringing the total number of American forces sent there this summer to more than 1,500. He also urged Congress anew to authorize a program to train and arm Syrian rebels who are fighting both the Islamic State militants and Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Obama’s plans amounted to a striking shift for a president who rose to political prominence in part because of his early opposition to the Iraq war. While in office, he has steadfastly sought to wind down American military campaigns in the Middle East and avoid new wars, particularly in Syria, a country where the chaos of an intractable civil war has given the Islamic State space to thrive and move freely across the border with Iraq.
Speaking on the eve of the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Obama’s plans were also an admission that years of American-led war in the Middle East have not quelled the terror threat emanating from the region.
Obama insisted that his plan to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State militants would not involve returning U.S. combat troops to the Middle East. Even so, he acknowledged that “any time we take military action, there are risks involved, especially to the servicemen and women who carry out these missions.”
“But 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 added.
The president’s speech, which lasted about 15 minutes, followed a summer of deliberation at the White House over how to respond to the violent Islamic State militants. While administration officials have said they are not aware of a credible threat of a potential attack by the militants in the U.S., they say the group poses risks to Americans and interests across the Middle East. Officials are also concerned about the prospect that Westerners, including Americans, who have joined the militant group could return to their home countries to launch attacks.
In recent weeks, the militants have released videos depicting the beheading of two American journalists in Syria. The violent images appear to have had an impact on a formerly war-weary public, with multiple polls in recent days showing that the majority of Americans support airstrikes in both Iraq and Syria.
Officials said Obama plans to proceed with both the broader airstrikes in Iraq and the strikes in Syria without seeking new authorization from Congress. Instead, he is to act under a use-of-force authorization Congress passed in the days after 9/11 to give President George W. Bush the ability to go after those who perpetrated the terror attacks. Obama has previously called for that authorization to be repealed, but he has also used it as support for strikes against terror targets in Yemen and Somalia.
Obama said his approach in Syria is modeled after those long-running U.S. counterterrorism campaigns. But it is different in important ways, starting with the fact that it marks the first time since 9/11 that a U.S. president has authorized the bombing of terror targets in another nation without seeking permission or at least notifying it in advance.
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.
Boehner’s sentiments were echoed by Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who said Obama “got some key things right” but that his plan will not be sufficient to completely destroy the terror group. They insisted additional steps are necessary.
“The president’s plan will help us achieve these vital goals, but only if he remains committed to fully implementing every aspect of that plan,” the lawmakers said in a joint statement. “Half measures against ISIS only make it stronger and will not lead to its destruction.”
McCain told Fox News’ Sean Hannity he is “very worried” about using what he called “half measures” to attempt to counter the Islamic State threat, but Obama’s plan is better than the status quo.
“The status quo is unacceptable,” McCain, R-Ariz., said. “All I know is, although I am very, very skeptical I’m willing to give it a try.”
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.
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.