President Obama said Wednesday he is prepared to order airstrikes on Syrian territory as part of an expanded counter-terrorism plan to confront the Islamic State jihadist group that is operating in both Syria and Iraq.
Obama, who began ordering airstrikes in Iraq last month, also told a national television audience he is urging Congress to approve money for training rebel forces in Syria.
“I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq,” Obama said while discussing plans for expanded airstrikes.
The president’s counter-terrorism strategy also includes: more airstrikes in Iraq; the deployment of 475 more U.S. military troops to assist the Iraq military, bringing the total number of American advisers to some 1,600; help from other countries; and an emphasis on having local ground forces battle the insurgent group that is also known as ISIL or ISIS.
“America will lead a broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat,” Obama said.
The president did not specify when and how the U.S. might strike at Islamic State targets in Syria. Asked about a timetable for a strikes in Syria, one senior administration official said that “we’re not going to telegraph our punches.”
Congressional lawmakers expressed support for the idea of defeating the Islamic State but want more details on the president’s plan.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, a frequent Obama critic, said he supports the idea of training Iraqi and Syrian fighters, but “I remain concerned that those measures could take years to fully implement at a time when ISIL’s momentum and territorial gains need to be immediately halted and reversed.”
Boehner said that while Obama presented “a compelling case for action, many questions remain about the way in which the president intends to act.”
Human rights groups questioned what some called an over-reliance on military options.
Amnesty International called on Obama to make a commitment that U.S. strikes “be directed at bona fide military targets … Amidst the horrors caused by Islamic State, U.S. policymakers should pause and ensure that US policies do not do further harm to civilians caught in the ongoing conflict,” the group said.
Obama and aides said the Islamic State is not an imminent threat to the United States but could be in the future if not checked now. Two White House aides spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about potential plans.
Again pledging not to deploy American combat troops, Obama said that his new “counter-terrorism campaign” against the Islamic State is based on ongoing operations in Yemen and Somalia. He described it as “a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist, using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground.”