Barack Obama announced a open-ended bombing campaign against Islamic State militants on Wednesday that will extend into Syria for the first time, despite acknowledging that the extremist group did not currently pose a direct threat to the US homeland.
In a markedly interventionist speech on the eve of the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Obama announced an aggressive offensive to combat Isis, which has been responsible for the beheading of two American citizens in the past month and captured a swath of territory in northern parts of Iraq and Syria.
He compared the campaign to those waged against al-Qaida in Yemen and Somalia, where US drones, cruise missiles and special-operations raids have battered local affiliates, yet without notably improving the stability of either country nor dealing decisive blows to Islamic militants there.
Obama said the air strikes were a necessary counter-terrorism measure to prevent the group, also known as Isil, from becoming a future threat to the US and therefore did not require fresh congressional approval.
But he is expected to receive overwhelming congressional support for separate authorisation to provide military support to rival Syrian rebels, a vote that some Republicans fear could help boost Democratic chances in this November’s midterm elections by providing political support for his tough new foreign policy.
“We will conduct a systematic campaign of airstrikes against these terrorists,” said Obama. “I will not hesitate to take action against Isil in Syria, as well as Iraq,” he added.
The speech came a year to the day of another TV address, when Obama declared his intention not to launch air strikes against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. Then, Obama said: “I’ve spent four-and-a-half years working to end wars, not to start them.”
A year on, Obama’s hand has been forced by the remarkable advance of Isis in Iraq and Syria. A more limited campaign of air strikes against Isis targets in Iraq has been portrayed as an attempt to defend US interests there. But the credibility of that definition has been stretched: the US military has so far launched 154 air strikes in Iraq and deployed more than 1,100 troops and “advisers” in ostensibly noncombat roles.
The Pentagon is currently working on identifying suitable targets in Syria, according to White House officials speaking to reporters in advance of the speech. The US will also deploy a further 475 troops to Iraq, where they are expected to help identify further targets for air strikes.
Obama struck an unusually nationalist tone in his speech, referring to American leadership as “the one constant in an uncertain world”. He said: “America, our endless blessings bestow an enduring burden. But as Americans, we welcome our responsibility to lead.”
The president acknowledged the portent of the date. “Tomorrow marks 13 years since our country was attacked. Next week marks six years since our economy suffered its worst setback since the Great Depression. Yet despite these shocks; through the pain we have felt and the gruelling work required to bounce back – America is better positioned today to seize the future than any other nation on Earth.”