President Barack Obama will go on the offensive against the Islamic State group with a broader counterterror mission than he previously has been willing to embrace, U.S. officials said Monday.
But the new plan, which Obama is to lay out in a speech Wednesday, still won’t commit U.S. troops to a ground war against the brutal insurgency and will rely heavily for now on allies to pitch in for what could be an extended campaign.
Obama’s more aggressive posture — which officials say will target Islamic State militants comprehensively and not just to protect U.S. interests or help resolve humanitarian disasters — reflects a new direction for a president who campaigned to end the war in Iraq and has generally been deeply reluctant to use U.S. military might since he took office in 2009.
“Almost every single county on Earth has a role to play in eliminating the ISIL threat and the evil that it represents,” Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters Monday, using an acronym for the Islamic State. He said nations around the world are seeking to defeat the militancy with a coalition “built to endure for the months, and perhaps years, to come.”
The U.S. has already launched more than 100 airstrikes against militant targets in Iraq, including a new series that the military said killed an unusually large number of Islamic State fighters. A Central Command spokesman, Maj. Curtis Kellogg, said most of the 50 to 70 fighters targeted near the Haditha Dam were believed to have been killed.
Now, after the beheadings of two abducted American journalists, Obama is considering expanding the air campaign into Syria, where the Islamic State has a safe haven. He has long avoided taking military action in Syria, concerned about indirectly assisting President Bashar Assad and his government in Damascus, which the U.S. opposes. But White House spokesman Josh Earnest suggested Monday that the U.S. could be moving in that direction, saying Obama was willing “to go wherever is necessary to strike those who are threatening Americans.”
As Obama speaks Wednesday, Kerry will be enroute to Saudi Arabia and Jordan to meet with Mideast leaders and gauge their level of commitment to a growing worldwide coalition that is uniting against the Islamic State. Kerry said nations from Canada to Estonia to Kuwait to Australia have already contributed a mix of assistance.
In a call Monday evening, Obama congratulated new Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi for the approval of his government on Monday. The White House said al-Abadi “expressed his commitment to work with all communities in Iraq as well as regional and international partners to strengthen Iraq’s capabilities” to fight the Islamic State militants.
But beyond airstrikes, much of the international strategy against the Islamic State covers the same ground as it has for the past several months.
Two senior U.S. officials said it will continue to seek to curb foreign fighters and funding flowing to militants; persuade the new government in Baghdad to give more power to its Sunni citizens in hopes of discouraging them from joining the insurgency; and strengthen Iraqi government forces and moderate Syrian rebels in their respective battles against the Islamic State.
Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have for months worked to combat the Islamic State either by sharing intelligence, sending humanitarian aid, providing military assistance to rebels, or punishing suspected foreign fighters. Broadened U.S. airstrikes would help cover Iraqi military forces, particularly the Peshmergain the country’s Kurdish north and Western-backed elements of the Syrian opposition.
But Western leaders still appear divided on whether to launch airstrikes in Syria. U.S. officials said Obama is leaning toward doing so as part of an international effort, and British Prime Minister David Cameron last week said he had not ruled them out. It’s likely that the airstrikes, if they occur, would aim to avoid any of Assad’s aircraft, landing strips or other assets that are part of Damascus’ campaign to attack the Sunni rebel groups that include the Islamic State.
Obama is also expected to press congressional lawmakers to approve $500 million in lethal aid to the Syrian rebels. He proposed the aid earlier this year, but his request has stalled on Capitol Hill.