WASHINGTON — In a high-stakes address to the nation Wednesday night, President Barack Obama planned to outline a broad expansion of the U.S. military role in combating extremists in Iraq and Syria, including a call for arming Syrian opposition forces and potentially launching airstrikes in both countries.
Obama has told congressional lawmakers that he has the authority to proceed with much of his plan without their formal approval. However, he is seeking authorization from Congress for the train-and-equip operation for Syrian rebels, a request he first made earlier this summer.
House Republicans threw a potential roadblock in front of those plans Wednesday by not including the measure in a temporary funding measure. It was unclear whether Republicans were rejecting the request completely or would leave open another avenue.
On the Senate floor, Democratic leader Harry Reid urged quick authorization of the president’s request to help arm moderate opposition forces in Syria. He also backed another key element of Obama’s proposal: the formation of a coalition of countries in Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere that would also contribute military and political assistance.
“Going it alone is not going to work,” Reid said. “We must have the support of the international community if we’re to rid the world of ISIS” — an acronym for the Islamic State group.
For Obama, a sustained U.S. intervention in the Middle East is at odds with the vision he had for the region when he ran for president on a pledge to end the war in Iraq, where the role of American fighting forces drew to a close nearly three years ago. The timing of his announcement Wednesday night was all the more striking, just hours before anniversary commemorations of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Earlier Wednesday, Obama met with his national security advisers. He also spoke by phone with Saudi King Abdullah, ahead of a gathering of Arab leaders on their contributions to a global coalition against the Islamic State.
Secretary of State John Kerry was travelling to Saudi Arabia and Jordan this week. He first made a stop in Baghdad to meet with Iraq’s new leaders and pledge U.S. support for eliminating the extremist group and the threat it poses.
Republicans have pressed Obama to be specific about his plans.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell called Obama “a rather reluctant commander in chief” and urged him to outline a military strategy to defeat the terrorists and any funding and authorization he needs.
“It’s pretty clear to me at least that the American people fully appreciate the nature of this threat,” McConnell said. “After the beheadings of two American citizens, they don’t want an explanation of what’s happening. They want a plan. They want some presidential leadership.”
Meanwhile, Francis Taylor, the Homeland Security Department’s undersecretary for intelligence and analysis, told lawmakers U.S. officials are currently unaware of any credible threat of a potential attack in the United States by the Islamic State. But Taylor testified that the militants are a serious threat to the Middle East and could attack U.S. targets overseas with little or no warning.
Obama has long resisted deepening U.S. involvement in Syria. But recent events, including the Islamic State’s beheading of two American journalists, has changed his calculus, putting him on the brink of launching airstrikes in Syria.
The U.S. is already launching airstrikes against Islamic State targets inside Iraq, undertaken at the invitation of the Iraqi government and without formal authorization from Congress. But the mission has been limited to strikes that help protect American interests in the region and prevent humanitarian crises.
U.S. officials said Obama was expected to loosen those limitations and open a broader counterterrorism campaign against the militants in Iraq. Obama also told foreign policy experts at a private dinner Monday that the Islamic State must be viewed as one organization, not two groups separated by a border — raising expectations that he would press into Syria.
Administration officials and others familiar with Obama’s thinking spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to be identified.
Even as he ramps up airstrikes, Obama has continued to rule out sending U.S. troops into ground combat operations in the Middle East. Instead, the administration is focused on bolstering the capacity of the Iraqi security forces and Syrian opposition.
The U.S. already has been running a smaller CIA program to train the rebels, but Obama is seeking approval for a more overt military effort that could involve staging training locations in countries near Syria.
Administration officials said Obama also sees a congressional authorization for a Syrian train-and-equip message as sending a strong signal to allies who are considering similar efforts.
Germany has decided to send assault rifles, ammunition, anti-tank weapons and armoured vehicles to Kurdish forces in Iraq fighting the Islamic State, breaking with Berlin’s previous reluctance to send weapons into conflicts. The deliveries haven’t started, but last week Germany sent a first planeload of military equipment such as helmets, protective vests, field glasses and mine-searching devices to Iraq.
Following a meeting between Obama and congressional leaders Tuesday, an aide to House Speaker John Boehner said the Ohio Republican expressed support for efforts to increase the effectiveness of the Iraqi security forces and for equipping the Syrian opposition. Boehner also said he would support the deployment of U.S. military personnel to Iraq in a training and advisory role and to “assist with lethal targeting” of Islamic State leadership.
In a shift for a war-weary nation, new polls suggest the American people would support a sustained air campaign. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released Monday showed 71 per cent of Americans support airstrikes in Iraq, up from 54 per cent just three weeks ago. And 65 per cent say they support extending airstrikes into Syria.