WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Wednesday stepped up the offensive to destroy ISIL militants, ordering airstrikes in Iraq and, for the first time, in Syria, with the mission so difficult, senior administration officials said, the fight will likely continue after Obama leaves office.
“Our objective is clear: we will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy,” Obama said in a 14-minute prime time speech from the White House. He announced that the U.S. will lead a “broad coalition” of nations in the battle — with no U.S. troops taking part in ground combat.
“I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq,” Obama said as he announced the expansion of the military campaign into Syria. “This is a core principle of my presidency: if you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.”
The sustained attack against ISIL is a long-term proposition, a White House senior official said at a briefing before Obama’s address.
“We will do as much of that work as we can with the time that is available to the president,” the official.
RELATED: Should we be calling it ISIS or ISIL? Depends on who you ask Sarah Palin after Obama’s speech: ‘Go big or go home’ Battling ISIL: White House strategy fact sheet Obama: ISIL is ‘unique in its brutality’ — full transcript McCain, Carney get into heated debate on CNN
The president adamantly ruled out the prospect of putting American troops in combat roles on the ground in Iraq or Syria.
Even so, Obama’s plans amount to a striking shift for a president who rose to political prominence in part because of his early opposition to the Iraq war. While in office, he’s steadfastly sought to wind down American military campaigns in the Middle East and avoid new wars — particularly in Syria, a country where the chaos of a lengthy civil war has given the Islamic State space to thrive and move freely across the border with Iraq.
Obama, who won the presidency on a pledge to get the U.S. out of Iraq and reset relations with the Islamic world, spoke on the eve of the Sept. 11 attacks and the two-year anniversary of the terrorist attack at the U.S. mission in Benghazi. Wednesday also marked exactly a year since a speech in which he tried to make the case for military intervention in Syria.
Obama never made that move in 2013 after it was clear that a war-weary Congress was not going to go along.
What’s changed is the ability of ISIL to capture territory, move with impunity between Iraq and Syria, attract foreign fighters — including some from the U.S. and Europe — and the horrific beheadings of two U.S. journalists, which vividly brought the threat home in the weeks before the November midterm elections.
Polls are showing the public wants the Obama White House to do more.
ISIL is the acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known as ISIS — the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
“Now let’s make two things clear,” Obama said. “ISIL is not ‘Islamic.’ No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim. And ISIL is certainly not a state.
“It was formerly al-Qaida’s affiliate in Iraq, and has taken advantage of sectarian strife and Syria’s civil war to gain territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border. It is recognized by no government, nor the people it subjugates. ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.”
In August, Obama was slammed for stating “we don’t have a strategy yet” to fight ISIL. On Wednesday, Obama outlined a series of steps the U.S. and allies will take against the militants:
◆ A broader offensive against ISIL. The present mission, to protect U.S. interests and provide humanitarian relief with targeted bombings, will switch to airstrikes in Iraq and Syria to support Iraqi and Kurdish troops on the ground fighting ISIL forces. Syrian targets are being identified with the goal to deny ISIL any safe havens. Obama announced he will send 475 U.S. service members — in addition to 1,000 already in the pipeline —to Iraq to bolster Iraqi and Kurdish soldiers with training, intelligence and equipment.
◆ Increased support to train and equip Iraqi and Syrian ground forces. In the case of Iraq, this means helping government forces. For Syria, this means more help to rebels who have been fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Obama has been trying to oust Assad for years, accusing him of using chemical warfare against Syrians but the U.S. — until now — has been wary of equipping the rebels for fear the weapons could fall into the wrong hands. This new aid to rebels also will help them wage an assault against the Assad regime.
Obama emphasized this additional training will not involve U.S. personnel in Syria. Saudi Arabia, which shares a long border with Iraq, will host the training missions for the armies.
◆ Building a coalition of partners. So far, Obama has the support of some of the U.S. NATO partners — the White House did not name the nations— plus the Saudis, Jordan and the UAE. Secretary of State John Kerry was in Baghdad on Wednesday and will remain in the region to forge alliances with Sunni Arab countries who have much more at stake than the U.S.
◆ Securing authorization from Congress for $500 millionto train and equip the Syrian opposition. Obama and White House officials maintain they do not have to ask Congress for authorization for the sustained airstrikes against Iraq and Syria because that was granted by lawmakers back in 2001. Whether or not all lawmakers agree will not stop the airstrikes from being launched.
However, the White House does want the support of Congress with the path forward to build a consensus not yet clear.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger R-Ill., a pilot in the Air National Guard, said the Obama speech overall was “fairly forceful, fairly defensive,” strong on Iraq and could have been stronger on Syria. Kinzinger predicted Congress would give Obama what he wants regarding training and equipping the Syrian opposition.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, was supportive but wary.
“I support the president’s plan to train and equip the Iraqi Security Forces and Syrian opposition, but I remain concerned that those measures could take years to fully implement at a time when ISIL’s momentum and territorial gains need to be immediately halted and reversed,” he said.
Obama is coming to Congress and the American people wity record-low ratings in popularity and for his handling of foreign policy — but polls show the public has an appetite for action.
In a striking reversal, a new Washington Post/ABC poll found 65 percent of those surveyed backed expanding airstrikes against ISIL into Syria. A year ago, when Obama could not muster support to hit Syria, 61 percent were against.