Barack Obama, facing questions on the legal justification for and likely “mission creep” of his air campaign against Islamic State (Isis) militants in Iraq and Syria, on Saturday repeated his promise not to use US ground troops but said: “When the world is threatened, when the world needs help, it calls on America. And we call on our troops.”
Later on Saturday the president of Egypt, Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi, told the Associated Press he was prepared to support the fight against Isis, but added that “it’s not an issue of ground troops from abroad”.
This week, French planes joined the American effort, which, since 8 August, has delivered more than 170 air strikes on Isis targets in northern Iraq. On Saturday, Isis militants released 49 hostages — 46 Turkish and three Iraqi — who had been taken in Mosul, while Turkey opened its border to 45,000 Kurdish refugees fleeing Isis attacks.
Isis, which has captured swathes of territory in northern Iraq and Syria, has killed two American hostages and one Briton, releasing videos of the killings which have prompted worldwide revulsion.
Delivering his weekly address after gaining congressional support for his plan to arm some anti-government rebels in Syria, Obama said: “I won’t commit our troops to fighting another ground war in Iraq, or in Syria. It’s more effective to use our capabilities to help partners on the ground secure their own country’s futures.”
However, Robert Gates, Obama’s former defence secretary, voiced widespread skepticism about the policy when he told the Associated Press: “They’re not going to be able to be successful against Isis strictly from the air, or strictly depending on the Iraqi forces or the [Kurdish] Peshmerga.
“So there will be boots on the ground if there’s to be any hope of success in the strategy.”
US military personnel were sent to Iraq this summer, and have the authority to fight back if attacked.
Richard Fontaine, president of the Center for New American Security, told the AP that would leave Obama with “something of a rhetorical quandary”.
“From a realistic and even legal standpoint, what’s going to be happening in Iraq is going to look a lot like combat,” said Fontaine, a former State Department official.
In his address, Obama also echoed recent statements about the lack of a credible threat to the US itself from Isis, which have led some observers to question the legality of his effort against the militants. He said intelligence agencies had “not yet detected specific plots from these terrorists against America”, and added: “Right now, they pose a threat to the people of Iraq, Syria, and the broader Middle East.
“But [Isis] leaders have threatened America and our allies. And if left unchecked, they could pose a growing threat to the United States.”
The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have emerged as key members of the coalition sought by the Obama administration, brought together by secretary of state John Kerry and sold to Congress this week by Kerry, defence secretary Chuck Hagel and military chiefs.
On Saturday, Egypt’s al-Sisi promoted a “comprehensive strategy” to confront not just Isis, and said he had warned about the threat of terrorism in the region a year ago but that other leaders had only understood when Isis fighters overran parts of Iraq.
Addressing congressional support for his policy, Obama said: “A majority of Democrats and a majority of Republicans in both the House and the Senate have now approved a first, key part of our strategy by wide margins. They’ve given our troops the authority they need to train Syrian opposition fighters so that they can fight [Isis] in Syria.
“Those votes sent a powerful signal to the world: Americans are united in confronting this danger. And I hope Congress continues to make sure our troops get what they need to get the job done.”
The Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed a bill approving the plan to arm Syrian rebels on Wednesday, by a vote of 273 to 156. On Thursday the Senate also voted in favour, by 78 to 22 and despite voluble opposition from Rand Paul of Kentucky, a possible Republican candidate for president in 2016.
“It’s not that I’m against all intervention,” Paul said. “I do see Isis as a threat to us — but I see our previous policy as having made it worse.”
On Saturday, saying “more than 40″ countries had committed their support, Obama ended his address by defining the US’s war aims, saying: “We will use our air power. We will train and equip our partners. We will advise and we will assist. And we’ll lead a broad coalition of nations who have a stake in this fight.
“This isn’t America vs [Isis]. This is the people of that region vs [Isis]. It’s the world vs [Isis].”
Assyrian International News Agency