President Barack Obama said Wednesday that he will expand the U.S. air campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), lifting restrictions on American strikes in Iraq and for the first time authorizing direct attacks against the militant group in Syria.
Addressing the nation from the White House on Wednesday night, Obama said the U.S. is going on offense, launching “a steady, relentless effort to take out” the extremist group that has seized vast swaths of Iraq and has a large safe haven in Syria, “wherever they exist.”
“So tonight, with a new Iraqi government in place, and following consultations with allies abroad and Congress at home, I can announce that America will lead a broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat,” Obama said. “Our objective is clear: we will degrade, and ultimately destroy, [ISIS] through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy.”
Over the past month, the U.S. has conducted more than 150 air strikes against ISIS targets in Iraq under the limited mission to protect American facilities and provide humanitarian relief. But Obama, who was elected to end two wars, found himself announcing an open-ended campaign against ISIS, as American public opinion has shifted in favor of strikes against the group following the beheading of two American journalists.
“If there is an [ISIS] target that we need to hit in Iraq, we will hit it,” a senior Administration official said Wednesday previewing the speech. “This is something that the President has decided to do,” an official said of strikes in Syria.
“I will not hesitate to take action against [ISIS] in Syria, as well as Iraq,” Obama said, acknowledging there will be risks to American service members. “This is a core principle of my presidency: If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.”
But what will follow will be far from the “shock and awe” of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Instead, Administration officials described a long-term campaign designed to limit the extremist group’s ability to operate with “impunity” in its territory. “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, referring to long-standing targeted drone campaigns against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and al-Shabab fighters.
Obama did not put a timetable on the American action against ISIS, saying “it will take time to eradicate a cancer like ISIS,” and senior Administration officials would not define what victory against the group would look like during a press briefing before the speech. In recent years, Obama has cast the campaign against Islamist extremists as open-ended, designed to keep fighters from reconsolidating to become a threat to the U.S., while lowering expectations that the threat can ever be truly eliminated.
“We cannot erase every trace of evil from the world, and small groups of killers have the capacity to do great harm,” Obama said. “That was the case before 9/11, and that remains true today.”
American officials have repeatedly said they are not aware of any active plots by ISIS against the U.S. homeland, but they are concerned by the thousands of foreign fighters, including more than 100 Americans, who are believed to be battling alongside ISIS and could return to the U.S. to carry out attacks in the future.
Obama once again ruled out American troops fighting on the ground directly against ISIS, saying the U.S. is strengthening its military and diplomatic support for the Iraqi government, Kurdish fighters and the moderate Syrian opposition. A senior administration official said the government of Saudi Arabia agreed last week to become a “full partner” in efforts to equip Syrian fighters, including hosting effort to train the forces fighting ISIS.
Secretary of State John Kerry is traveling the region this week to build the international coalition Obama is seeking to take on ISIS. At the meeting of NATO in Wales last week, Obama secured the support of many U.S. allies to assist in the effort against the group, but officials said that so far the U.S. would be the only military directly involved in air strikes against ISIS forces.
More than 1,000 U.S. military personnel are in Iraq protecting American facilities and advising and training Iraqi and Kurdish forces. Obama announced that he will send an additional 475 American troops to Iraq to expand the advisory, training and surveillance missions based in Baghdad and the Kurdish city of Erbil, bringing to 1,600 the number of U.S. troops in the country.
The speech was Obama’s first prime-time address from the White House to the American people in a year, the last one coming as the President then sought congressional authorization for military strikes against Syrian President Bashar Assad for using chemical weapons on his own people. Obama maintained Wednesday that he has the authority to act on his own in Iraq and Syria as long as necessary, but is open to a specific congressional authorization for his actions. A senior Administration official said Obama is relying on his constitutional powers as Commander in Chief, and on the post–Sept. 11, 2001, Authorization for the Use of Military Force against al-Qaeda to act against ISIS without explicit congressional approval.