WASHINGTON — President Obama on Wednesday outlined a broad battle plan to defeat the Islamic State, including US airstrikes in war-torn Syria and an expanded American military advisory role in Iraq. But he vowed no US ground troops would be engaged in combat.
In a prime-time address on the eve of the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, and nearly three years after the withdrawal of US military forces from Iraq, Obama said that the nation faces a grave new threat from the group variously known by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL.
“Our objective is clear: We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy,” Obama said in the White House address.
The president delivered a cautionary note, saying it “will take time to eradicate a cancer like ISIL. And any time we take military action, there are risks involved, especially to the servicemen and women who carry out these missions.” But he said the effort “will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil.”
The president, who was elected to office partly on his vows to end the 2003 US-led war in Iraq, likened the battle against the Islamic State to US operations against other Al Qaeda-like groups in Yemen and Somalia, where a US drone attack killed a terrorist leader this week.
“This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years,” Obama said.
Obama said he has the authority as commander in chief to order the military action but he said he would welcome congressional approval. He also reiterated his call for Congress to approve assistance for moderate Syrian rebels.
Senate majority leader Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, said he backs the strategy of limited airstrikes to help local forces confront the group and the wider diplomatic effort. “The president made it clear that he can take decisive action to destroy ISIS through the use of airstrikes,” Reid said in a statement, but he also called for a vote in Congress authorizing an expansion of military force.
House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, issued a statement that was both stinging and supportive. He criticized Obama for waiting too long to acknowledge the threat, adding that “while the president presented a compelling case for action, many questions remain about the way in which the president intends to act.”
Still, there remain skeptical members in both parties who fear a wider war and insist that Congress must have a full debate about the threat and the scope of the US response and want the mission put to a vote.
Representative Richard Neal, a Springfield Democrat who voted against authorizing the Iraq war in 2002, said he worries about the potential consequences of a new military campaign. But he asserted there was little choice but to take aggressive action.
“Simply put, ISIS is the most dangerous terrorist group in the world today,” Neal said in a statement. “ISIS is now a threat to international security and that’s why political, diplomatic, and military steps need to be taken by the United States and our allies to destroy their capabilities.”
In a White House briefing earlier Wednesday, senior officials said other nations would join a coalition against the Islamic State. The most important partner, officials said, will be Iraq and its new Shi’ite Muslim-led government, headed by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. Abadi has pledged to be more inclusive of Iraq’s disparate sects and ethnic groups, which is seen as critical to weakening the ISIS’s hold on majority Sunni Muslim areas of the country. Abadi’s predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, was accused of stoking divisions and in the process empowering the Sunni militants.
Without US combat troops, Iraq’s security forces — along with the Kurdish peshmerga militia in northern Iraq — are seen as critical to rolling back the group’s territorial gains and ensuring that the American airstrikes are effective.
Obama said the Islamic State poses a threat to the region and beyond and must be confronted aggressively, both militarily and through a diplomatic offensive to weaken the group’s support among Sunni Muslims.
The Islamic State has waged a brutal campaign of beheadings and sectarian killings and implemented of a strict form of Islamic law in the territory it controls. It has roots in the US-led Iraq war that lasted from 2003 to 2011.
The group has drawn Sunni militants from neighboring nations, along with several hundred Europeans and Americans, US intelligence officials say, raising fears that its sanctuary in the heart of the Middle East could pose a direct terrorist threat to the West.
Until now US air attacks against the group, which began in early August, have largely focused on protecting American personnel in Iraq. The United States and its allies have also provided humanitarian aid to some of the group’s victims.
That mission will now expand both inside Iraq and, for the first time, across the border in Syria, administration officials told reporters Wednesday.
“If there is an ISIL target we need to hit in Iraq we will hit it,” said a senior administration official, in a briefing the White House scheduled before the speech under the condition the participants not be identified by name. As for Syria, the official said, “We will not be constrained by that border.”
The Syrian front is particularly complicated given that the Islamic State has also been fighting the regime of President Bashar Assad, who the United States considers a war criminal for allegedly overseeing the killing of thousands of Syrians.
“We are not going to work with the Assad regime,” said a senior administration official.
Similarly, officials said US forces would not coordinate with forces from Iran, which are supporting Iraqi militias.
Launching a broader US military operation in the region could prove to be particularly unpalatable since American forces fought an eight-year war in Iraq that killed nearly 4,500 American soldiers.
While Obama said there would be no US combat troops, he does plan to dispatch 475 more military advisers to assist Iraqi forces, on top of nearly 1,100 advisers and security personnel that have arrived in Iraq in recent weeks.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who has advocated for strong military action, arrived in Baghdad earlier Wednesday to meet with Abadi. On Thursday, Kerry is scheduled to travel to Saudi Arabia to meet leaders of Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia.
Bryan Bender can be reached at email@example.com.