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Obama: More airstrikes, additional U.S. troops to address ISIS

Posted September 10, 2014
Updated September 11, 2014

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— More airstrikes, along with an additional 475 U.S. troops providing resources and logistical support, are part of Barack Obama’s plan to combat Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria, the president said Wednesday night in an address to the nation.

Wednesday’s speech comes as the Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), continues to advance through Syria and Iraq, using brutal tactics to forcefully turn the region into an Islamic state, or caliphate.

Obama’s plan includes:

  • Airstrikes that will help Iraqi forces go on the offensive. Previous airstrikes focused on protecting American interests or supported humanitarian missions in Iraq. U.S. fighter jets will now hit ISIS targets in Syria as well. “If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven,” Obama said.
  • The additional U.S. soldiers will support Iraqi and Kurdish forces with training, intelligence gathering and equipment. In addition, National Guard units will help Sunni communities gain independence from ISIS control. Obama called on Congress to approve additional resources to support Syrian opposition forces. “In the fight against ISIL, we cannot rely on an Assad regime that terrorizes its people,” Obama said. “A regime that will never again regain the legitimacy it has lost.”
  • U.S. counterterrorism efforts will work to cut off ISIS’ funding and stem the flow of foreign fighters in and out of the Middle East.
  • The U.S. will provide humanitarian assistance to those displaced by ISIS, including Sunni and Shia Muslims as well as Christians and other religious minorities in the region. “We cannot allow these communities to be driven from their ancient homelands,” Obama said.

ISIS has not made any threats to the United States, but Obama said immediate action must be taken.

“ISIL poses a threat to the people of Iraq and Syria, and the broader Middle East, including American citizens, personnel and facilities,” he said. “If left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region, including to the United States.”

Obama’s primetime address, which comes one day before the 13th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, also highlighted the administration’s terrorism successes, including the killing of Osama bin Laden and reducing al-Qaeda’s terrorist network. The speech also comes after harsh criticism following Obama’s admission last month that his administration did not have a plan for addressing ISIS.

Prior to his speech, U.S. officials were busy garnering support for the international coalition. Saudi Arabia agreed to an American request to let Syrian opposition fighters train on its bases, according to news reports. The agreement comes as Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to arrive in Saudi Arabia on Thursday to discuss how to counter ISIS.

Kerry was in Iraq on Wednesday to meet with the country’s new leadership and pledge U.S. support to destroying the group, which Obama said depended on the Iraqis forming an inclusive government.

“In the coming days (Kerry) will travel across the Middle East and Europe to enlist more partners in this fight, especially Arab nations who can help mobilize Sunni communities in Iraq and Syria to drive these terrorists from their lands,” Obama said. “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.”

The Islamic State – A primer

ISIS is a hardline Sunni jihadist group known for its brutal tactics – so extreme that al-Qaeda disassociated itself from it. American officials say the group now rivals al-Qaeda as the world’s most powerful jihadist group, according to news reports.

The group’s violent efforts include the beheading of two freelance American journalists within the past month and the execution of hundreds of Iraqi military recruits.

It is estimated that between 20,000 and 27,000 Islamic State fighters are operating in Iraq and Syria, according to news reports.

ISIS was born as an Iraqi al-Qaeda affiliate in 2006 but grew after the U.S. military left Iraq and strengthened during the Syrian Civil War. The group has since claimed large swaths of territory in eastern Syria and northern and western Iraq, where the United States has conducted over 150 airstrikes on Islamic State targets to protect American interests, support humanitarian efforts and assist Iraqi forces.

The group wants to create an Islamic caliphate stretching across the Middle East and enforced by Sharia law. Sharia, or Islamic law, is a set of rules that apply to marriage, divorce, and other aspects of Islamic life, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. Controversial aspects of Sharia law include extreme punishments – such as flogging, stoning and amputation – and limited, if any, rights for women.

“Now let’s make two things clear – ISIL is not Islamic,” Obama said in his speech. “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 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.”

Measured approach needed

Obama’s speech came hours after a previously-planned discussion at Duke University about how to address ISIS.

"The notion of taking things off the table like ground forces, you don't talk...presidents are not supposed to be talking about what they are not going to do," said Fran Townsend, chairwoman of the Homeland Security Council under President George W. Bush.

Daniel Benjamin, principal counterterrorism advisor to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, believes more troops are needed.

“I think to be effective, you need several thousand,” he said.

David Schanzer, director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security who moderated the event, said the U.S. should confront ISIS in a thoughtful, deliberate manner.

“I think it’s a manageable threat,” he said prior to the discussion. “That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, but I think it’s manageable.”

Addressing ISIS will not be a quick fix, said Obama, who described the group in his address as a “cancer.”

“This counter-terrorism 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. “This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.”

Hagan, Tillis react

Moments after the primetime address, Senator Kay Hagan (D–N.C.) praised Obama's plan.

"The president and our military leadership have now developed a plan to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels and defeat ISIS with a sustained campaign of airstrikes," she said in a statement. "As long ago as the spring of last year, I pressed the administration to arm and empower moderate Syrian rebels and I am glad that effort will be accelerated."

N.C. Speaker of the House Thom Tillis (R–Mecklenburg), who is challenging Hagan for her Senate seat, agrees with the additional airstrikes but said Obama should have done more sooner.

"(ISIS is) growing stronger each day because of President Obama’s failed foreign policy and lack of leadership," he said in a statement.

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