President Obama outlined a “steady, relentless” strategy Wednesday to combat Islamic State fighters “wherever they exist,” signaling that he will target the militant group in Iraq and neighboring Syria, where the fighters have captured large swaths of territory.
Nearly six years after he was elected on the promise to end America’s decade of wars, Obama detailed a military campaign that is broader and more complex than any other he has launched.
The president said he will expand U.S. airstrikes against the militants in Iraq to include targets throughout the country, and he left open the option to bomb the group across the rapidly disintegrating border with Syria, where Islamic State harbors its weapons, camps and fighters.
“We will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are. That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria as well as Iraq,” Obama said, using a common acronym for the militant group. “This is a core principle of my presidency: If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.”
White House officials say Obama also plans to further train and arm Iraqi and Kurdish troops as well as opposition forces battling Islamic State in Syria. He has beefed up partnerships with governments in the Middle East and with Western allies, who have been asked to assist in the training, gather intelligence and counter Islamic State’s appeal in the broader Muslim world.
In his televised remarks, Obama described the effort as a “broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat.”
“Our objective is clear: We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy,” he said.
“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 faced a barrage of criticism last month after acknowledging that his administration had no strategy yet for dealing with the militants in Syria. The president’s speech was aimed at countering critics as well as preparing Americans for a lengthy engagement.
Backing up the president, Secretary of State John F. Kerry flew to Baghdad for meetings Wednesday with the new prime minister, Haider Abadi, and other political leaders to discuss how the U.S. can increase its support to the new government there to help confront the insurgents. And Obama spoke by phone with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, another key potential ally.
The president’s plan may mark the first direct U.S. intervention in Syria, a reversal of the White House’s long-held resistance to becoming entangled in its 3-year-old civil war. And it will certainly represent a dramatic escalation of a campaign that just a month ago Obama declared would be narrowly focused and limited to protecting U.S. citizens in Iraq and assisting refugees fleeing Islamic State as it rapidly seized large parts of the country this summer.
Administration officials now surmise that achieving Obama’s stated goal of “ultimately destroying” the group may take years, leaving it a task for future presidents to complete.
Obama repeated his commitment to achieving his aims without sending ground troops into combat and dragging the United States back to war in the Middle East just three years after U.S. troops left Iraq.
“I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Obama said. “It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil.”
But administration officials acknowledge that the strategy is likely to rely on a growing contingent of U.S. military advisors, intelligence officers and others in and around Iraq, a force that has grown to more than 1,000 over the summer to take on the Sunni Muslim extremists aiming to create a caliphate in the region.
The White House argues that a broad new campaign is warranted and legally justified because Islamic State — an offshoot of Al Qaeda — is a threat to national security, as well as to U.S. interests and allies in the region, such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said that although officials have no information that the extremists’ plan to attack the United States, the militant group wants “to be the preeminent terrorist organization on the world’s stage.”
Administration officials assert that Obama can and will take these actions without authorization from lawmakers. The decision to avoid a vote in Congress is a reversal for the White House, which a year ago began to seek congressional authorization to launch airstrikes against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government. Obama declared then that lawmakers should have a role in sanctioning military action. Facing a likely no vote in Congress at the time, Obama called off the threat of strikes when Assad agreed to relinquish part of his chemical weapons stash.
Now the White House has dropped those arguments. With elections looming and political gridlock firmly in place, Congress is unlikely to agree on such a measure in the near future. The president is expected to say he welcomes lawmakers’ support and to promise to consult with them frequently.
To that end, the White House has asked Congress to authorize $500 million to arm and equip Syrian rebels by adding a provision to a must-pass spending bill that that could be voted on as soon as this week.
Administration officials met behind closed doors on Capitol Hill on Wednesday to press the issue with key lawmakers, many of whom panned the idea this year when Obama first raised it because of concern about arming foreign fighters whose allegiances are not always clear.
Although Obama appears to be bending to Republican calls for greater U.S. engagement in Iraq and Syria, GOP leaders continued to criticize him Wednesday.
“All of this underscores something I’ve been suggesting for some time: The president is a rather reluctant commander in chief,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said.
“Americans are worried and they’re anxious. They want — and deserve — the truth. Most of all, though, they want a plan.”
The speech on the eve of the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks was an attempt to rally support for his mission from the American public. A summer of foreign crises has taken a toll on his standing on foreign affairs, and polls show Americans increasingly disapproving of Obama’s leadership abroad.
At the same time, the public’s weariness after waging war on two fronts for much of the last decade is waning somewhat, according to recent polls. Videos showing the beheading of two U.S. journalists at the hands of Islamic State militants appears to have brought on fresh fear of terrorism and galvanized support for military action.
The moment will allow Obama to make a rare high-profile case for his counter-terrorism strategy. For much of his presidency, Obama has said relatively little about his preferred tactic for battling terrorist forces: unannounced drone strikes targeting Al Qaeda and its affiliates in outposts around the world. The White House rarely acknowledges such strikes, much less discusses them in detail in prime time.
As he has before, Obama was due to compare his Iraq strategy with previous campaigns.
“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.
But some noted the Iraq plan was a far broader effort, with a larger coalition, more extensive diplomatic and political elements and a more aggressive military component than any previous effort.
“Since 9/11, there have been two paradigms: One, we invade a country and we’re there for a decade, which is clearly not something that is sustainable. Or two, we conduct pinprick drone strikes. But pinprick drone strikes don’t change the condition on the ground or prevent the groups from returning,” said Paul Scharre, a fellow at the Center for New American Security and a former intelligence and surveillance specialist at the Pentagon. “It’s clear the administration is looking at something more. Obama will have to explain what that model looks like.”
Times staff writers Lisa Mascaro and Brian Bennett in Washington contributed to this report.