President Obama is taking his fight against the Islamic State into Syria.
In a primetime address to the nation on Wednesday, the president announced he was expanding his military campaign against the rising terrorist organization and that he would attack ISIS fighters "wherever they exist."
I have made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are. That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq. This is a core principle of my presidency: if you threaten America, you will find no safe haven."
In a briefing with reporters before Obama spoke, a senior administration official would not say when the strikes in Syria would commence. The official said only they would occur "at a time and place of our choosing."
"We will take action on the Syria side of the border against ISIL, but we’re not going to telegraph our punches," the official said on a conference call.
The president also announced that he was ordering an additional 475 U.S. military personnel to Iraq, which would bring the total non-combat soldiers in the country to about 1,500.
Obama's 15-minute address from the White House was carefully calibrated to prepare the nation for a new and sustained campaign against ISIS while at the same time insisting that the U.S. would not "get dragged into another ground war in 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. This counter-terrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist, using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground."
The president argued that rather than a full-scale invasion of countries where ISIS terrorists plotted, his strategy was consistent with his previous and successful efforts to degrade al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups with a combination of precision airstrikes and support for opposition armies fighting on the ground.
While Obama said he would not need a formal congressional authorization for the campaign, he and other top officials spent the day lobbying Congress for more limited approval of his plan to arm and equip Syrian rebels.
Congressional support, he said, was welcomed if not required.
I have the authority to address the threat from ISIL. But I believe we are strongest as a nation when the President and Congress work together. So I welcome congressional support for this effort in order to show the world that Americans are united in confronting this danger."
Obama's address was highly anticipated, coming less than two weeks after the president sheepishly admitted he did not have a strategy "yet" for defeating ISIS in Syria following the brutal videotaped beheadings of two American journalists.
But ultimately, he announced only an incremental expansion of his campaign against the terrorist group, and one that did not deviate from the course he had been setting for weeks.
The targeted and deliberate effort, officials said, reflected Obama's broader approach to counterterrorism.
"It is very clear from this president that he does not shoot first and ask questions later," one senior administration official said on the conference call.
If there was anything noteworthy in Obama's speech, it was his final defense of American intervention and, in perhaps a nod aimed at conservatives, American exceptionalism.
America, our endless blessings bestow an enduring burden. But as Americans, we welcome our responsibility to lead. From Europe to Asia – from the far reaches of Africa to war-torn capitals of the Middle East – we stand for freedom, for justice, for dignity. These are values that have guided our nation since its founding. Tonight, I ask for your support in carrying that leadership forward. I do so as a Commander-in-Chief who could not be prouder of our men and women in uniform – pilots who bravely fly in the face of danger above the Middle East, and service-members who support our partners on the ground."
Republicans responded tepidly, with statements that reminded Obama they had been quicker to recognize the threat ISIS posed.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said Obama had "recanted his earlier dismissals of ISIL’s capabilities and rightly acknowledged the grave and growing threat posed by the spreading global epidemic of radicalized Islam."
He has finally begun to make the case the nation has needed him to make for quite some time: that destroying this terrorist threat requires decisive action and must be the highest priority for the United States and other nations of the free world.
“A speech is not the same thing as a strategy, however. While the president presented a compelling case for action, many questions remain about the way in which the president intends to act. For example, I support the president’s plan to train and equip the Iraqi Security Forces and Syrian opposition, but I remain concerned that those measures could take years to fully implement at a time when ISIL’s momentum and territorial gains need to be immediately halted and reversed. It is also a cause for concern that the president appears to view the effort against ISIL as an isolated counterterrorism campaign, rather than as what it must be: an all-out effort to destroy an enemy that has declared a holy war against America and the principles for which we stand."