WASHINGTON (AP) – In an address to Americans, President Barack Obama will outline an expanded military and political effort to combat militants in Syria and Iraq, and urge Congress to quickly give him authority to arm Syrian opposition forces.
But administration officials said Obama will press forward with other elements of his plan without formal authorisation from lawmakers. That could include wide-ranging airstrikes in Iraq and possibly in Syria.
Other elements of Obama’s plan, which he was to lay out in a prime-time TV speech Wednesday, included increased support for Iraqi security forces, as well as military and diplomatic commitments from partners in Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere.
After an hour-long discussion with congressional leaders Tuesday, the White House said Obama told lawmakers that he “has the authority he needs to take action” against the Islamic State militants. The White House added that the president still would welcome action from Congress that would “aid the overall effort and demonstrate to the world that the United States is united in defeating the threat.”
For Obama, a sustained US intervention in the Middle East is at odds with the vision he had for the region when he ran for president on a pledge to end the war in Iraq, where the role of American fighting forces drew to a close nearly three years ago. The timing of his announcement Wednesday night was all the more striking, scheduled just hours before anniversary commemorations of the terrorist attacks of Sept 11, 2001.
Among the president’s most urgent priorities will be seeking authorisation from Congress to arm more moderate elements of the opposition fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad. The president asked lawmakers earlier this year for a $500 million train-and-equip programme, but the plan stalled on Capitol Hill.
The US already has been running a smaller CIA programme to train the rebels, but Obama is seeking approval for a more overt military effort that could involve staging training locations in countries near Syria.
With Obama ruling out sending US ground troops into combat in Iraq or Syria, bolstering the capacity of the Iraqi security forces and Syrian opposition will be crucial to efforts to root out the Islamic State militant group, which has moved freely across the blurred border between the two countries. US airstrikes could help give the forces in both countries the space to make gains against the extremists.
Administration officials said Obama also sees a congressional authorisation for a Syrian train-and-equip message as sending a strong signal to allies who are considering similar efforts. Secretary of State John Kerry was travelling to the region for discussions in Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
On Capitol Hill, there was little consensus on the scope of Obama’s authority to broaden the campaign against the Islamic State extremists. While some lawmakers said the president has the power he needs under the Constitution, others were seeking a more central congressional role in the effort.