In a major reversal, President Barack Obama is moving to deepen the U.S. military role in the volatile Middle East, including training and arming Syrian rebels to fight Islamic State terrorists and potentially expanding airstrikes across the Iraqi border into Syria.
Obama outlined his plans for battling the Islamic State group in a high-stakes address to the nation Wednesday night. Ahead of his remarks, congressional leaders grappled with whether to support his request to arm the Syrian opposition and if so, how to get such a measure through the fractured legislature.
Obama’s plans amount to a striking shift for a president who has steadfastly sought to wind down American military campaigns in the Middle East and avoid new wars. That stance has been notable in Syria, where the Islamic State have taken advantage of the instability created by a three-year civil war and now operate freely in areas near and across the Iraqi border.
Closer to home, U.S. officials fear that Westerners who have joined the terrorist group could return to their own countries and launch attacks. However, officials said Wednesday they were not aware of a credible threat of a potential attack in the United States by the Islamic State.
Separately, the White House announced Wednesday that it was providing $25 million in immediate military assistance to the Iraqi government as part of efforts to combat the Islamic State.
Adamantly opposed to putting American combat troops on the ground, Obama will call for increased training of Iraqi security forces and the provision of arms shipments to vetted Syrian opposition fighters in order to help both groups in their fight against the terrorists.
In the hours before the president’s remarks, the Treasury Department said that Obama’s strategy would include stepped-up efforts to undermine the Islamic State group’s finances. David Cohen, Treasury’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, wrote in a post that the U.S. would be working with other countries, especially Gulf states, to cut off the group’s external funding networks and its access to the global financial system.
Meanwhile, Obama and Vice President Joe Biden called lawmakers to press them to include authorization for the program in temporary funding legislation. Lisa Monaco, Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, was also briefing lawmakers on Capitol Hill about the train-and-equip measure, administration officials said.
House Republicans put up a potential roadblock by not including the measure in the funding legislation. But it was unclear whether Republicans were rejecting the request completely or would leave open another avenue.
A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the Nevada Democrat might opt to seek separate legislation to authorize the president’s request.
For Obama, Wednesday’s address was also a chance to show critics who accuse him of being too hesitant in the face of overseas crises that he has a robust plan for defeating the terrorists. Republicans have accused him of ignoring months of warnings about the threat posed by the Islamic State, and even Democratic allies have grumbled in recent days that Obama has been slow in striking back after the terrorist released videos of the beheadings of two American journalists in Syria.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell called Obama “a rather reluctant commander in chief” and urged him to outline a military strategy to defeat the terrorists and to specify any funding and authorization he needs.