U.S. President Barack Obama vowed on Thursday to wage a counter-terrorism campaign against militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) "wherever they are," in an indication he may authorize airstrikes in Syria.
“Our objective is clear: We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL (ISIS) through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy,” Obama said.
He said he would hunt down the ISIS militants “wherever they are.”
“That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL (ISIS) in Syria, as well as Iraq. This is a core principle of my presidency: if you threaten America, you will find no safe haven,” he said.
Obama's preparedness to launch attacks inside Syria, which is embroiled in a three-year civil war, showed the seriousness of the threat American officials see from ISIS. A year ago, the president shied away from air strikes against Syria's government for its use of chemical weapons against Syrians.
“We can't erase every trace of evil from the world, and small groups of killers have the capacity to do great harm. That was the case before 9/11, and that remains true today,” Obama said at the White House.
“That's why we must remain vigilant as threats emerge. At this moment, the greatest threats come from the Middle East and North Africa, where radical groups exploit grievances for their own gain. And one of those groups is ISIL -- which calls itself the Islamic State.”
Obama laid out his emerging plan for tackling the group in a widely anticipated White House speech, two weeks after coming under fire for saying: “We don't have a strategy yet” for the group in Syria and six months after declaring that groups like Islamic State were minor players.
He said he would expand the list of targets inside Iraq beyond several isolated areas. He will send 475 more American advisers to help Iraqi forces, joining more than 1,000 already there. They will not engage in combat.
“Not like Iraq and Afghanistan”
While unveiling his strategy to confront ISIS, Obama made it clear that his campaign would not be like the previous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where American soldiers were deployed on the ground.
“It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil,” Obama said.
Obama has staked much of his foreign policy record on having extracted U.S. forces from Iraq after running for president in 2008 on a pledge to end what he felt was an unnecessary conflict begun by his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush.
Obama's move to deepen U.S. involvement in Iraq in its fight against ISIS follows opinion polls that show Americans feel the president has been too cautious in tackling the group, according to Reuters. Obama has struggled with a host of foreign policy crises this year, bringing his overall public approval record down to near record lows of about 40 percent.
U.S. officials want allies to join in attacks on the group as well as in training and equipping Iraqi forces and Syrian rebels, providing humanitarian relief and intelligence.
Building an allied coalition
What specifically each nation will do in the coalition remains to be hammered out. Secretary of State John Kerry is meeting Gulf allies in the region and Obama is to host a leaders' security conference at the U.N. General Assembly in two weeks with the aim of fleshing out duties of the coalition.
Before the focus on ISIS, Obama for months had been cool to the notion of arming the poorly organized Syrian rebels, fearing weapons provided them could end up in the wrong hands.
But he now needs the rebels to become strong enough to hold ground cleared by U.S. air strikes, just as Iraqi forces are doing in Iraq.
In a phone call with Saudi King Abdullah prior to outlining his strategy, the two leaders agreed to support the moderate Syrian rebels.
U.S. officials pushed back hard against the notion that striking ISIS strongholds in Syria would unintentionally help President Bashar al-Assad. They said the Sunni-majority areas in the eastern part of the country the militants hold are not places where Assad loyalists would be able to take advantage to regain control.
ISIS has carved out what it calls a “caliphate” from broad areas in Iraq and Syria and uses savage methods that have included the beheading of many prisoners, including two Americans.
“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 said.