The United States will lead a broad coalition of nations to take the fight to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, President Barack Obama said in a nationally televised address tonight at the White House.
The president vowed to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL, and added that he will not hesitate to target the terrorists with airstrikes in Syria as well as in Iraq.
The trigger for the announcement was the formation of a unity government in Iraq, he said.
“ISIL poses a threat to the people of Iraq and Syria, and the broader Middle East – including American citizens, personnel and facilities,” he said. “If left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region – including to the United States.”
Though there is no evidence of an attack planned on the U.S. homeland, the president said, ISIL leaders have threatened America and its allies. “Our intelligence community believes that thousands of foreigners – including Europeans and some Americans – have joined them in Syria and Iraq,” he said. “Trained and battle-hardened, these fighters could try to return to their home countries and carry out deadly attacks.”
Taking threat seriously
The United States is taking the ISIL threat seriously and will meet all threats with strength and resolve, the president said.
In August, Obama ordered limited U.S. military airstrikes against ISIL to protect Americans and stop the ISIL advance into Iraq. “Since then, we have conducted more than 150 successful airstrikes in Iraq,” he said. “These strikes have protected American personnel and facilities, killed ISIL fighters, destroyed weapons, and given space for Iraqi and Kurdish forces to reclaim key territory. These strikes have helped save the lives of thousands of innocent men, women and children.”
But while American military power can make a decisive difference, “this is not our fight alone,” he said. Iraqis and other Arab partners must do their parts in securing the region and confronting the threat.
That coalition is coming together with the objective of degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy, the president said.
American air power in cooperation with Iraqi boots on the ground will strike at the terrorists. “Moreover, I have made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are,” Obama said. “That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq. This is a core principle of my presidency: if you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.”
Increasing U.S. support
As part of the strategy, the United States will increase support to forces fighting these terrorists on the ground. “In June, I deployed several hundred American service members to Iraq to assess how we can best support Iraqi security forces,” Obama said. “Now that those teams have completed their work – and Iraq has formed a government – we will send an additional 475 service members to Iraq.”
These American forces will not have a combat mission, but they will provide Iraqi and Kurdish forces with training, intelligence and equipment. “We will also support Iraq’s efforts to stand up national guard units to help Sunni communities secure their own freedom from ISIL control,” the president said.
As part of this, the United States will continue its ramp-up of efforts to train and supply the moderate Syrian opposition. “Tonight, I again call on Congress to give us additional authorities and resources to train and equip these fighters,” Obama said. “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. 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.”
Another front in the counterterrorism campaign is to work with allies and friends around the world to cut ISIL’s funding, improve intelligence on the terror group and strengthen defenses.
Finally, the United States will continue to provide humanitarian assistance to innocent civilians who have been displaced by ISIL. “This includes Sunni and Shia Muslims who are at grave risk, as well as tens of thousands of Christians and other religious minorities,” Obama said. “We cannot allow these communities to be driven from their ancient homelands.”
Other nations pitch in
Nations will support each of these legs of the strategy in different ways. Some already are flying humanitarian missions alongside U.S. Air Force crews. Others will work to train and supply Iraqi, Kurdish and moderate Syrian forces. Pilots of other nations will fly fighter jets alongside Americans. Still others will share intelligence.
“This is American leadership at its best: we stand with people who fight for their own freedom, and we rally other nations on behalf of our common security and common humanity,” he said.
All this will take time, the president said.
“Any time we take military action, there are risks involved – especially to the servicemen and women who carry out these missions,” he said. “But I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil.”
The counterterrorism campaign requires a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever it exists, “using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground,” he said. “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.”
The approach also is consistent with the one he outlined at West Point, N.Y. in May. That is to use American force against those threatening America’s core interests, “but to mobilize partners wherever possible to address broader challenges to international order,” he said.
Hagel: MIlitary is ready
The American military is ready for this new campaign, said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in a written statement released after the president’s speech. “The men and women of the U.S. armed forces are ready to carry out the orders of our commander in chief, to work with our partners across government, and to work with our friends and allies around the world to accomplish this mission,” he said.
Hagel stressed that this effort is not limited to simply military action.
“As the president made clear, American military power cannot alone eradicate the threats posed by ISIL to the United States, our allies, and our friends and partners in the region,” he said. “Iraq’s continued political progress toward a more inclusive government will be critical, as will our coalition’s use of all instruments of power – military, law enforcement, economic, diplomatic, intelligence and humanitarian assistance – in coordination with countries in the region.”