United States President Barack Obama announced an open-ended bombing campaign against Islamic State (Isis) militants this week that will extend into Syria for the first time, despite acknowledging that the extremist group does not currently pose a direct threat to the US homeland.
In a markedly interventionist speech on the eve of the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Obama announced an aggressive offensive to combat Isis, which has been responsible for the beheading of two American citizens in the past month and has captured a swath of territory in northern parts of Iraq and Syria.
He compared the campaign with those waged against al-Qaeda in Yemen and Somalia, where US drones, cruise missiles and special operations raids have battered local affiliates, yet without notably improving the stability of either country or dealing decisive blows to Islamic militants there.
Obama said the air strikes are a necessary counterterrorism measure to prevent the group, also known as Isil, from becoming a future threat to the US and therefore do not require fresh congressional approval.
But he is expected to receive overwhelming congressional support for separate authorisation to provide military support to rival Syrian rebels, a vote that some Republicans fear could help boost Democratic chances in this November’s midterm elections by providing political support for the president’s tough new foreign policy.
“We will conduct a systematic campaign of air strikes against these terrorists,” said Obama. “I will not hesitate to take action against Isil in Syria, as well as Iraq,” he added.
‘Working to end wars’
The speech came a year to the day of another television address, when Obama declared his intention not to launch air strikes against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. Then, Obama said: “I’ve spent four-and-a-half years working to end wars, not to start them.”
A year on, Obama’s hand has been forced by the remarkable advance of Isis in Iraq and Syria. A more limited campaign of air strikes against Isis targets in Iraq has been portrayed as an attempt to defend US interests there. But the credibility of that definition has been stretched: the US military has so far launched 154 air strikes in Iraq and deployed more than 1 100 troops and “advisers” in ostensibly noncombat roles.
The Pentagon is currently working on identifying suitable targets in Syria, according to White House officials speaking to reporters in advance of the speech. The US will also deploy a further 475 troops to Iraq, where they are expected to identify further targets for air strikes.
Obama struck an unusually nationalist tone in his speech, referring to American leadership as “the one constant in an uncertain world”. He said: “America, our endless blessings bestow an enduring burden. But as Americans, we welcome our responsibility to lead.”
Strikes against Syria are expected to take some time to identify and Obama warned of a protracted campaign. “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.
But he echoed a number of recent US intelligence assessments that suggest there is no current threat to the US. “If left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region – including to the United States,” said the president. “While we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland, Isil leaders have threatened America and our allies.”
A key part of the plan is the enlistment of robust support from regional allies. “This is a moment for international co-operation to prove its value,” Obama’s secretary of state, John Kerry, said during a meeting with the incoming Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in Baghdad this week. “This is a moment for multilateralism to prove its value and have its effect.”
Separately, France indicated that it would join the US in air strikes against Isis fighters in Iraq if called on to do so. But its foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, warned that extending the attacks westward into Syria could be seen as supporting Assad. – © Guardian News & Media 2014