WASHINGTON (AP) — Opening a new military front in the Middle East, President Barack Obama authorized U.S. airstrikes inside Syria for the first time Wednesday night, along with expanded strikes in Iraq as part of “a steady, relentless effort” to root out Islamic State extremists and their spreading reign of terror.
“We will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are,” Obama declared in a prime-time address to the nation from the White House. “This is a core principle of my presidency: If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.”
Obama announced that he was dispatching nearly 500 more U.S. troops to advise and assist Iraqi security forces, as well as conduct intelligence and reconnaissance flights, bringing the total number of American forces sent there this summer to more than 1,500. He also urged Congress anew to authorize a program to train and arm Syrian rebels who are fighting both the Islamic State militants and Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Obama’s plans amounted 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 has 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 an intractable civil war has given the Islamic State space to thrive and move freely across the border with Iraq.
Speaking on the eve of the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Obama’s plans were also an admission that years of American-led war in the Middle East have not quelled the terror threat emanating from the region.
Obama insisted that his plan to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State militants would not involve returning U.S. combat troops to the Middle East. Even so, he acknowledged that “any time we take military action, there are risks involved, especially to the servicemen and women who carry out these missions.”
“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,” he added.
The president’s speech, which lasted about 15 minutes, followed a summer of deliberation at the White House over how to respond to the violent Islamic State militants. While administration officials have said they are not aware of a credible threat of a potential attack by the militants in the U.S., they say the group poses risks to Americans and interests across the Middle East. Officials are also concerned about the prospect that Westerners, including Americans, who have joined the militant group could return to their home countries to launch attacks.