- Associated Press - Thursday, September 11, 2014

BEIRUT (AP) — Syria’s main Western-backed opposition group on Thursday welcomed President Barack Obama’s authorization of U.S. airstrikes targeting the Islamic State group inside Syria, saying it stands “ready and willing” to partner with the international community to defeat the extremists.

But the Syrian National Coalition said that equally important was the realization that fighting the Islamic State group alone is not enough and should be coupled with degrading and ultimately removing President Bashar Assad from power.

Kurdish politicians in Iraq similarly praised Obama’s announcement of wider airstrikes and assistance to Iraqi forces.

“We welcome this new strategy,” said Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurdish politician and one of Iraq’s newly-appointed deputy prime ministers. “We think it will work with the cooperation of the indigenous local forces like Iraqi Security Forces, the Kurdish peshmerga and other forces.”

Zebari also called for active Arab participation in the war against the Islamic State, saying the group was a threat not just to Iraq and Syria but the entire world.

“There is an urgent need for action. People cannot sit on the fence. This is a mortal threat to everybody,” he told The Associated Press.

The U.S. began launching limited airstrikes against Islamic State group targets in Iraq earlier this summer at the request of that country’s former prime minister. The Sunni extremists have seized roughly a third of Iraq and Syria, declaring a self-styled caliphate in areas under their control where they apply their strict interpretation of Islamic law, Shariah.

In a prime-time address to the nation from the White House, Obama announced he was authorizing U.S. airstrikes inside Syria for the first time, along with expanded strikes in Iraq as part of “a steady, relentless effort” to root out Islamic State extremists and their spreading reign of terror.

He also urged Congress anew to authorize a program to train and arm Syrian rebels who are fighting both the Islamic State militants and Syrian President Bashar Assad.

“We will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are,” Obama declared. “That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq.”

Obama did not say when U.S. forces would begin striking at targets inside Syria.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem had last month warned the U.S. against carrying out airstrikes on its territory without Damascus’ consent, saying any such attack would be considered an aggression.

Obama, in his speech, ruled out any partnership with Assad in the fight against the Islamic State militants, saying he will “never regain the legitimacy” he has lost.

There was no immediate comment from the government in Damascus to Obama’s speech Thursday. State-run news agency SANA carried the speech without commentary, adding only as a reminder what al-Moallem had said last month.

A year ago, Obama gave a speech to the nation in which he was widely expected to announce the U.S. would be launching punishing airstrikes against Assad’s forces, after blaming them for a deadly chemical weapons attack near Damascus. Obama backed down at the last minute.

Ironically, Obama is now authorizing airstrikes not against Assad, but against a group committed to his removal from power. In doing that, the U.S. runs the risk of unintentionally strengthening Assad’s hand, potentially opening the way for the Syrian army to fill the vacuum left by the extremists.

Hadi Bahra, chief of the Syrian National Coalition opposition group, said mainstream Syrian rebels desperately need the kind of support that would enable it to form a reliable and well-equipped force to fight the extremists.

“Today, we are one step closer to achieving that goal,” he said.

He said the Syrian Coalition “stands ready and willing to partner with the international community” not only to defeat the extremists but also “to rid the Syrian people of the tyranny of the Assad regime.”


Associated Press writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Vivian Salama in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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