President Barack Obama is preparing to expand the U.S. offensive against Islamic State extremists, including targeting the group’s havens inside Syria.
The administration is considering steps including moves to block foreign fighters from entering Syria and Iraq, delivering more aid to moderate factions among Syrian rebels and expanding air strikes to Islamic State targets in Syria.
The U.S. already has stepped up aerial surveillance in Syria, which would be needed to provide the real-time intelligence necessary to conduct precise attacks.
“They know that Syria has to be a piece of the plan,” said former House Intelligence Committee Chairman Jane Harman, one of a group of outside foreign experts Obama consulted over a three-hour dinner at the White House on Sept. 8. “He’s seriously considering all options.”
Obama will deliver a televised address to the nation today at 8 p.m. to lay out his strategy to battle the Islamic State, which has captured swaths of Syria and Iraq.
The Sunni extremist group’s sweep across Iraq in recent months and a campaign of terror that has included the beheading of two U.S. journalists has galvanized public fears of a rising terrorist threat and stirred demands from lawmakers that Obama articulate a plan for dealing with Islamic State.
A U.S. public wary a year ago when Obama sought congressional authorization for air strikes against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons has now shifted its mood. Sixty-five percent of Americans back bombing strikes against the Sunni extremists in Syria, more than double the level of support from a year ago, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll released yesterday.
Representative Peter King, a Republican of New York and a member of the House Intelligence Committee, linked public support for an expanded military mission to “those beheadings; they were tragic enough, but it also brought back the memories of 9/11.”
Obama’s foreign policy rating is dropping on both sides of the Atlantic, according to a Transatlantic Trends survey sponsored by the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. The survey showed 53 percent of Americans disapprove of the president’s international policies, while 64 percent of Europeans support them, down from 69 percent a year ago.
The growing Islamic State threat to the government of Iraq and U.S. interests in the country prompted Obama to authorize air strikes against Islamic State targets there. The campaign, which has resulted in more than 150 raids by U.S. planes and drones, has helped Iraqi and Kurdish forces roll back some of the Islamic State gains.
“There has to be a political solution; there’s not a military solution alone for this,” Representative Mike Coffman, a Colorado Republican, said in an interview today with Bloomberg Television. He said he doesn’t support U.S. troops on the ground.
Obama has refrained from intervening in Syria, where Islamic State is one of several groups seeking to topple Assad. The chaos in the country has given Islamic State “a virtual safe haven,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said yesterday.
“It is very dangerous for terrorist organizations, extremist organizations, to be able to occupy and operate in a safe haven or a virtual safe haven, like we see in Syria,” Earnest said. He declined to answer a question on whether Obama would authorize strikes on targets in the country.
In preparation for his speech, Obama met at the White House yesterday with House Speaker John Boehner, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. The discussion, which lasted more than an hour, gave Obama a chance to preview his thinking and gauge congressional reaction.
Obama told the congressional leaders “he has the authority he needs to take action” against Islamic State, according to a statement released by the White House. Obama “would welcome action by the Congress that would aid the overall effort and demonstrate to the world that the United States is united in defeating the threat,” the statement added.
Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said today that Obama has made clear he will use drones and airstrikes against Islamic State.
“This is a smart, strategic and effective approach, and I support it,” Reid said on the Senate floor. He said he agreed that Obama has the authority to act against Islamic State.
Boehner, an Ohio Republican, told Obama that he would support use of the U.S. military to train and advise Iraqi security forces to target Islamic State leadership, the speaker’s office said in a statement after the meeting.
Harman, president of the Wilson Center, a congressionally chartered research group in Washington, said Obama thinks he has authority for military action under the 1973 War Powers Act, which gives the president 60 days after notifying Congress of a military action. His most recent notification, of airstrikes near Haditha Dam in Iraq, was sent on Sept. 8.
Obama would like an authorization passed by Congress, Harman said, though he thinks it will be difficult to gain before midterm congressional elections in November.
McConnell said Obama should seek a congressional vote.
“Whether or not he thinks he’s authorized to do what” he plans to do, “it would be to all of our advantage for Congress to be in effect approving a plan” to defeat the Islamic State, McConnell told reporters at the Capitol.
The administration also is debating asking Congress for a multibillion-dollar budget to support a broad military mission in the region before lawmakers recess later this month. No final decision has been made.
The request, which is still being crafted at the White House, assumes increased air strikes and money to support Iraqi and Kurdish forces battling the Islamic militants, according to an administration official, who asked for anonymity because the plan hasn’t been made public.
Funds also would be earmarked for support of Syrian moderates. Obama in June asked Congress to approve $500 million for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1 to arm and train “moderate” Syrian rebels to better fight Assad.
The package would involve direct military spending, such as munitions to carry out airstrikes, and indirect spending, such as countries furnishing military equipment by requiring U.S. forces for transport.
In an interview last weekend on NBC’s “Meet the Press” program, Obama said he would be “asking Congress to make sure that they understand and support what our plan is. And it’s going to require some resources, I suspect, above what we are currently doing.”
Earnest said Obama’s advisers are in “intensive consultations” with members of Congress on the price tag for the operation.
The U.S. military probably can continue with the current air campaign without seeking additional funds for now by shifting money in its $85 billion Overseas Contingency Operations account.
The Pentagon is asking Congress for permission to shift about $2 billion in its war budget, in part to pay for ramped-up operations in the Middle East, according to a Defense Department document obtained by Bloomberg News. Some of the money also would pay for equipment and needs in Eastern Europe.