President Barack Obama announced that the United States would lead a broad international coalition to defeat the Islamic State insurgent group in a speech to the nation on Wednesday. His plan combines U.S. airstrikes with training and aid for Iraqi forces and Syrian rebels the administration deems moderate. He vowed that the effort would not include the deployment of U.S. troops on the ground.
Perhaps the newest policy the president outlined is a commitment to intervene in Syria. “I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria as well as Iraq,” he said, using an abbreviation for another name for the Islamic State.
Obama continued to frame the U.S. effort against the Islamic State as a humanitarian mission as well as an attempt to address a strategic threat.
“We will continue providing humanitarian assistance to innocent civilians who have been displaced by this terrorist organization,” he said.
The president spoke amid news of gains by the Iraqi military against the Islamic State. On Wednesday, Iraq’s Defense Ministry released video of troops retaking the district of Birwana in Anbar province.
“These areas were purged of Islamic militants who had crossed the border,” said Lt. Gen. Mohammed al-Iskari, an Iraqi military spokesman. “There were about 150 militants in this area. Two of them have been captured.”
But the Iraqi military still needs help. Much of western Iraq was overrun by the militants when Iraqi troops fled in the face of an Islamic State offensive early this summer.
Obama said the battle plan to secure Iraq and protect the United States is a “counterterrorism campaign.”
He promised there will be no U.S. combat troops directly involved in the fighting; instead, regional soldiers trained and supported by the U.S. will be on the ground.
“This counterterrorism 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,” he said.
The U.S. will send 457 more military advisers to Iraq and build a coalition of Arab countries to join the front lines.
Secretary of State John Kerry is in Saudi Arabia today, meeting with officials. He hopes to recruit countries like Jordan and Turkey too.
“This is a fight where the Syrian opposition and the Iraqi forces themselves have significant capacity,” Kerry said. “Some have to be retrained and refocused, but we are confident that, together with other countries involved, that will happen and it will be sufficient to the task.”
The president authorized airstrikes in Iraq last month, but he has hesitated to do the same in Syria.
Until now, the U.S. has only modestly supported what it calls moderate rebels in their fight with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Now Obama’s solution is to identify, train and arm those rebels to counter the Islamic State.
“In the fight against ISIL, we cannot rely on an Assad regime that terrorizes its people, a regime that will never regain the legitimacy it has lost,” Obama said. “Instead, we must strengthen the opposition as the best counterweight to extremists like ISIL while pursuing the political solution necessary to solve Syria’s crisis once and for all.”
Questions abound about the effectiveness and political ramifications of the president’s strategy.
What risks come with putting more firepower into the hands of disparate fighting groups?
How can the U.S. be sure the rebels it trains won’t become another threat?
As unpredictable events unfold, how committed will Obama remain to keeping U.S. ground troops out of the conflict?