On the eve of the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks on Wednesday, September 10, Obama delivered a primetime TV address asking the American people and the international community to support what he called “a comprehensive, sustained counter-terrorism strategy” against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
One month after ordering military airstrikes to stop ISIS advances in Iraq, Obama signaled that he was prepared to issue a similar command in Syria. ISIS controls large swathes of Iraq and Syria in a bid to establish a so-called Islamic Caliphate.
“We will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are. 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,” Obama, using an alternate name for the terror group, said in a 15-minute speech on Wednesday night.
Under his 4-part strategy to “degrade and destroy” ISIS, Obama said America will increase support for moderate Syrian rebels, and ruled out what analysts called an “unholy alliance” with President Bashar al-Assad.
“I again call on Congress to give us additional authorities and resources to train and equip these fighters. 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,” he said.
Beyond Syria and Iraq, Obama warned that ISIS might pose a growing global threat if left unchecked.
Initially a part of Al Qaeda, ISIS became so brutal that the terrorist group behind the 9/11 attacks disowned it. ISIS has executed prisoners, killed children, enslaved and raped women, and beheaded soldiers and American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff.
ISIS grew while fighting the Assad regime in Syria’s 3-year-old civil war, eventually taking control of some major cities in Iraq as well.
‘Stem the flow of foreign fighters’
In Iraq, Obama said the US will send an additional 475 service members on top of the several hundred he earlier deployed. He reiterated that they will not be engaged in a combat mission.
“We will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq. But they are needed to support Iraqi and Kurdish forces with training, intelligence and equipment.”
Obama again called for support for what he called a “broad coalition” of Arab partners and international allies against ISIS. Working with the coalition, Obama said the US will cut off funding for ISIS, improve intelligence, strengthen defenses, and counter its “warped ideology.”
A key aspect of the strategy is stopping the flow of foreign fighters into and out of the Middle East – the subject of a United Nations Security Council meeting that Obama will chair here exactly two weeks from now.
“Our intelligence community believes that thousands of foreigners – including Europeans and some Americans – have joined them in Syria and Iraq. Trained and battle-hardened, these fighters could try to return to their home countries and carry out deadly attacks.”
The threat from ISIS has implications beyond the Middle East and the West. Rappler earlier reported that at least two Filipinos are fighting with ISIS in the Middle East, along with 200 Australians, 50 Indonesians and about 20 Malaysians.
Obama’s speech and the UN meeting come following fears that the foreign fighters will emerge from Syria and Iraq and carry out attacks using tactics they learned in battle – much like how the September 11, 2001 attacks and 2002 Bali bombings were linked to Afghan war veterans.
US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Iraq on Wednesday, and is set to travel across the Middle East and Europe to gain more support from American allies for the strategy against ISIS.
Obama said that Arab nations in particular have a role in mobilizing Sunni communities in Iraq and Syria to drive ISIS terrorists from their lands.
The last part of the strategy Obama laid out is continuing humanitarian assistance for civilians displaced by ISIS, including Sunni and Shia Muslims, Christians and religious minorities. ISIS is composed of radical Sunni jihadists.
‘American leadership at its best’
“We will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are… This is a core principle of my presidency: if you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.”
Obama’s address to the nation comes following criticism over a remark he made two weeks ago that the US has “no strategy” yet on ISIS, and over his reluctance to increase the US military footprint.
The American president has since been engaging with allies from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and other world leaders to counter ISIS.
The leader who was voted into office on the promise of ending the US war in Iraq said his strategy on ISIS is consistent with the foreign policy approach he outlined earlier this year: “to use force against anyone who threatens America’s core interests, but to mobilize partners wherever possible to address broader challenges to international order.”
He noted that the US must stand up to its responsibility to fight ISIS, as it had in other major global problems like the crisis in Ukraine, the Ebola outbreak and destroying Syria’s chemical weapons.
“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.”
Support on both sides of the aisle
Obama’s Republican foes welcomed his robust new anti-IS policy — but many accused him of dithering for weeks over what to do.
“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,” said House Speaker John Boehner.
But some Democrats in the Senate, some facing tough races in November’s congressional elections, distanced themselves from the president’s plan.
Senator Mark Udall of Colorado said he worried about the offensive expanding into a land war, which he said would need congressional approval.
“The American people must be assured that we are not pursuing another open-ended conflict in the Middle East, and I will not give this president – or any other president – a blank check to begin another land war in Iraq,” Udall said. – With additional reports from the Agence France-Presse in Washington DC/Rappler.com