Thirteen years on, Obama opens new front against terrorists in Syria

President seeks moderate Syrian ground army to aid US air power; PM convenes national security staff on ISIS threat; US: No evidence of 9/11 plot

A poster of the World Trade Center hangs on a wall at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, Sunday, May 25, 2014 (photo credit: OFFICIAL WHITE HOUSE PHOTO BY PETE SOUZA)
A poster of the World Trade Center hangs on a wall at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, Sunday, May 25, 2014
WASHINGTON – Thirteen years after the September 11 attacks, President Barack Obama plans to expand America’s military campaign against terrorists worldwide by ordering strikes against Islamic State forces in both Syria and Iraq until the group is destroyed.
"I can announce that America will lead a broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat," Obama will say in the evening address, in a preview of the speech released by the White House. "Our objective is clear: we will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy."
That campaign, the president will say, "will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist."
The new front will involve yet another country in a war on terror Obama has thus far rejected in name, but has continued in practice from his predecessor, using covert force against threat streams in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan.
“After 13 years of war since 9/11, the decision by the president to take on a new fight against this enemy was not an easy one,” US Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson said Wednesday. “But the president recognizes the serious threat.”
Obama’s plan for Syria is overt: The White House seeks to provide additional support for opposition groups in Syria vetted by the US, which will serve as a ground force complementing America’s air campaign.
Kurdish Peshmerga forces currently serve that role in America’s assault on Islamic State assets in Iraq, holding ground cleared by US air strikes. Obama has ruled out introducing US combat troops in either country.
In an address to the nation, he is expected to publicly acknowledge his intent to strike the group in Syria for the first time, after months of deliberation among members of the National Security Council.
Obama is also slated to ask Congress to fund the moderate Syrian rebels, though he has made such requests before in speeches delivered in May of this year.
The “comprehensive strategy,” as described by one White House official, will involve “US military action and support for the forces combating ISIL [Islamic State] on the ground – both the opposition in Syria and a new, inclusive Iraqi government.”
Speaking from the State Floor of the White House, Obama is expected to discuss a coalition of partners he has rallied to the fight, which includes the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates.
In Jerusalem, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu convened a meeting in his office on Wednesday to discuss terrorist threats from organizations such as Islamic State.
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) head Yoram Cohen, Israel Police Insp.- Gen. Yohanan Danino, and Attorney- General Yehuda Weinstein were among those at the meeting. The participants discussed what legal measures could be taken against those expressing sympathy for these groups and what tools could be used to keep the organizations from using the Internet to further their goals.
Islamic State, a fundamentalist Sunni army with more than 18,000 soldiers and billions of dollars in cash flow, has stormed territory throughout eastern Syria and northern Iraq since June. The US defense and intelligence communities view the group as the richest and most menacing terrorist organization ever to face the homeland.
In Baghdad, Secretary of State John Kerry met with Iraq’s new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, lauding him for swiftly forming a unity government the US is proud to support.
“It’s a true signal that Iraq and the leaders they have chosen are committed at this moment to the democratic future that so many Iraqis have sacrificed everything to bring about,” Kerry said, praising Abadi for moving forward rapidly on oil agreements with the semi-autonomous Kurdish regional government and on including Sunnis in his government.
Speaking alongside Kerry, Abadi said Iraq’s problems were emanating from Syria – and that the international community has an obligation to respond.
“What’s happening in Syria is coming across to Iraq. We cannot cross that border. It’s an international border.
But there is a role for the international community... to act immediately to stop the spread of this cancer,” he said.
The US has a force of 1,043 men already operating in Iraq, primarily providing security for American diplomats in Baghdad. The US has conducted 154 strikes since operations began this summer.
“ISIL is an extremely dangerous organization,” the homeland security secretary said, noting that the group carries out between 30 and 40 attacks per month. “It has the elements of both a terrorist organization and an insurgent army. It kills innocent civilians, and has seized large amounts of territory in Iraq and Syria, which it can utilize for safe haven, training, command and control, and from which it can launch attacks.”
In a long, private meeting on his plans in the Oval Office on Tuesday, Obama informed leaders in Congress that he does not require their authorization for the use of force in Syria against the terrorist group, which poses a direct security threat to the US.
“The president told the leaders he has the authority he needs to take action against ISIL in accordance with the mission he will lay out in his address,” the White House said in a readout from the meeting.
Republican leaders were pushing back, however, casting a political tone over the speech hours before its delivery.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) said the president “ought” to seek approval, and Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Obama would display an “extreme lack of judgment” if he chose to act alone.
National security staff briefed the president earlier on Tuesday on the US’s “security posture” entering the 13th anniversary of the September 11 attacks.
The official responsible for monitoring those threat streams, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Lisa Monaco, has said in recent days that the intelligence community has no evidence of an imminent attack to mark the anniversary.
“Monaco has convened counterterrorism and homeland security leaders across the government to review our security posture in light of not only this anniversary but the range of global threats we face,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday night.
Herb Keinon contributed to this report.