WASHINGTON -- Opening a new military front in the Middle East, President Barack Obama authorized U.S. airstrikes inside Syria for the first time, along with expanded strikes in Iraq, as part of "a steady, relentless effort" to root out Islamic State extremists and their spreading reign of terror.
"We will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are," Obama declared in a prime-time address to the nation from the White House last night. "This is a core principle of my presidency: If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven."
Obama announced that he was ordering 475 more U.S. troops to Iraq to assist that country's besieged security forces, bringing the total number of American forces sent there this summer to more than 1,500.
He also urged Congress anew to authorize a program to train and arm Syrian rebels who are fighting both the Islamic State militants and Syrian President Bashar Assad. While the CIA currently runs a small program to arm the Syrian rebels, the new version would be more robust.
Obama has beefed up partnerships with governments in the Middle East and Western allies, who have been asked to assist in training, intelligence and countering Islamic State's appeal in the Muslim world.
In his televised remarks, Obama described the effort as a "broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat."
Obama's plans amounted to a striking shift for a president who rose to prominence in part because of his early opposition to the Iraq War. While in office, he has steadfastly sought to wind down American military campaigns in the Middle East and avoid new wars -- particularly in Syria, a country where an intractable civil war has given Islamic State space to thrive.
Years invested, years to go
Administration officials believe that achieving Obama's stated goal "to degrade, and ultimately destroy" the group may take years, leaving it a task for future presidents to complete.
Speaking on the eve of the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Obama's plans were also an admission that U.S.-led wars in the 13 years since then have not quelled the terror threat.
Obama insisted he was not returning U.S. combat troops to Iraq. "I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil," he said. Even so, he acknowledged that "any time we take military action, there are risks involved, especially to the servicemen and women who carry out these missions."
The president's announcements follow a summer of deliberation over how to respond to the Islamic State terror rampage through Iraq and Syria. While officials have said they are not aware of a credible threat of a potential attack in the United States, they say the group poses risks to Americans and interests across the Middle East.
Officials are also concerned about the prospect that Westerners, including Americans, who have joined Islamic State could return to their home countries to launch attacks.
The United States began launching limited airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq earlier this summer. But Obama vowed that he would not commit the nation to a deeper military campaign until Iraq formed a new government that allowed greater participation from all sects, a step Iraqi leaders took Tuesday.
Support for strikes
Officials said Obama plans to proceed with the broader air war in Iraq and Syria without seeking new authorization from Congress.
Instead, he is to act under a use-of-force authorization Congress passed after 9/11 to give President George W. Bush the ability to go after those behind the terror attacks. Obama has previously called for that authorization to be repealed, but he has also used it as support for strikes against terror targets in Yemen and Somalia.
The United States has been pressing allies in Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere to help with efforts to degrade the terror group.
France's foreign minister said yesterday that his country was ready to take part in airstrikes in Iraq if needed. Germany announced that it was sending weapons, ammunition and armored vehicles to Kurdish forces in Iraq, breaking with Berlin's previous reluctance to send weapons into conflicts.
The Treasury Department will also step up efforts to choke off Islamic State's finances. David Cohen, Treasury's undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, wrote in a blog post that the United States would work with other countries to cut off the group's external funding networks and its access to the global financial system.
Key parts of Obama's plan to defeat Islamic State
A "systematic campaign" of airstrikes to support Iraqi forces as they go on the offense, and to hit Islamic State forces in Syria.
Ordering 475 more U.S. military members to Iraq in a noncombat role to aid in training, intelligence and equipment for Iraqi and Kurdish forces, bringing the total to more than 1,500.
Asking Congress for resources to strengthen Syrian opposition forces who have been fighting Islamic State as well as the Bashar Assad government.
Enlisting other nations, including Arab states, for military and other support for the effort.
Stepped-up international counterterrorism efforts to cut off Islamic State funding, improve intelligence and stop the flow of the group's fighters to and from the Middle East.
Humanitarian assistance to innocent civilians displaced by the terrorists.