Nine months after belittling the Islamic State as a “JV” terrorist group, President Obama will devote an urgent prime-time address Wednesday to his plan for defeating the suddenly resurgent militants, a strategy that will rely heavily on U.S. partnership with an untested Iraqi government and unproven Syrian rebels.
In a speech from the White House at 9 p.m., Mr. Obama will tell Americans that the Islamic State is now a “high national security priority,” aides said. And the president will try to marshal public and international support for what would likely be a yearslong counterterrorism campaign, launched little more than a year after he declared that the large-scale fight against Islamist terrorism was all but over.
The president briefed House and Senate leaders of both parties at the White House on Tuesday, though it didn’t appear he laid out many specifics. An aide to GOP House Speaker John A. Boehner said the president went over some of the ideas he’s already floated, and a White House statement Tuesday that Mr. Obama believed he had the power to act without congressional approval angered many on Capitol Hill.
Mr. Obama’s address will have to reconcile his past statements with his present course of action, analysts said.
“It’s going to be a huge challenge for President Obama, version 2014, to disagree with President Obama, version 2013, who suggested that we had won the battle against terrorism,” said Danielle Pletka, a foreign policy and defense analyst at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
“With sufficient humility and a genuine strategy, I believe he could persuade the American people of the importance of this mission,” she said. “The question is: Does he have the strategy? Does he have the humility? That’s not entirely clear.”
While White House officials underlined that Mr. Obama told the congressional leaders he already has the authority he needs to conduct the kind of operation he will lay out on Wednesday, they said he welcomed a gesture by Congress expressing support for his policy.
A senior White House official said Mr. Obama asked the congressional leaders to authorize training and equipment for the Syrian opposition before lawmakers depart Washington for midterm election campaigning later this month. In May, Mr. Obama proposed $500 million in assistance.
That claim of authority doesn’t sit well with some in Congress, including many Democrats, who say any expansion of attacks must be put up for a vote on Capitol Hill.
“If the president intends to prolong the military campaign in Iraq or extend it into Syria, he needs to make the case directly to the American people and secure authorization from Congress,” said California Rep. Adam B. Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, the senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also said he thought President Obama should seek congressional “buy-in” on any major new mission, but said he was skeptical of the president’s intentions.
“I don’t think he’s going to ask for that, and I’m dismayed by that,” Mr. Corker told CNN. “I think most people here want to deal with [the Islamic State] in a strong manner that exterminates them. But I think not seeking that approval on the front end is extremely lacking in judgment.”
Mr. Obama approved strikes last month against Islamic State militants, who have made startling gains across broad swaths of Iraq since the spring. The U.S. campaign began on Aug. 8 and totaled 153 strikes as of Tuesday afternoon, all of them in Iraq.
The administration’s plan for fighting the terrorists in Syria will lean on moderate Syrian rebels who are also engaged in a brutal civil war to topple the regime of President Bashar Assad. Mr. Obama hasn’t said whether he’ll expand airstrikes into Syria, and he has vowed not to send U.S. combat troops into the fight.
“Ramping up our assistance to … elements of the moderate Syrian opposition would have the effect both of taking the fight to [the Islamic State] but also taking the fight to the Assad regime,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest.
But vetting the various Syrian rebel groups to find reliable, moderate partners has been a slow and frustrating process for the administration. Adding to that uncertainty, the family of slain U.S. journalist Steven Sotloff said this week that the hostage was sold to the Islamic State by a supposedly moderate Syrian rebel group.
Middle East trip
Mr. Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, Lisa Monaco, returned from the Middle East Tuesday and told colleagues that she was encouraged by the response from governments in the region to join the fight against the Islamic State. Among the nations most threatened by the militants is Jordan, where The Associated Press reported that the CIA has approached a retired former agency official with close ties to King Abdullah II about setting up a special task force to deal with the threat.
The Arab League has called on members to support international efforts against the Islamic State militarily and politically. Arab governments such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar thus far have avoided a prominent role for fear of provoking retaliatory attacks from the Sunni militants who control major regions of both Syria and Iraq.
The crosscurrents of the conflict are daunting, with the regimes in Syria and Iran, which are hostile to Washington, also determined foes of the Islamic State movement, and reliable allies for the United States on the ground hard to find.
News reports Tuesday indicated that the leader of an ultraconservative Islamic rebel group in Syria was killed Tuesday in a suicide bombing along with others of its top officials, its allies said, thereby weakening the ranks of the country’s already shaky armed opposition.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack that killed Hassan Aboud and other leading members of Ahrar al-Sham, part of the strongest front to challenge the Islamic State. But given that forces loyal to President Bashar Assad’s government do not typically use suicide bombers, it appeared likely that forces in the murky mix of opposition fighters in Syria’s 3-year-old civil war were involved, according to The Associated Press.
Mr. Obama, facing crucial midterm elections in which he needs his antiwar base, will also emphasize in his address Wednesday that he doesn’t envision a campaign in which the U.S. shoulders all of the costs and personnel for the fight, as in the last Iraq war.
“The president, as much as anyone else, has certainly learned the lessons that are evident from previous military activities in Iraq,” Mr. Earnest said. “It does not serve our interest to put the United States in the position in which we are bearing the load of the responsibility for providing security in the nation of Iraq.”
Jens David Ohlin, a constitutional law specialist at Cornell University Law School, said Mr. Obama “has a huge decision to make.”
“Does he want to leave the White House as a peacetime president, declaring victory in the war against al Qaeda and returning the country to a sense of normalcy?” Mr. Ohlin asked. “Or does he want to leave the White House having recommitted the country to another costly military campaign? He cannot have it both ways — splitting the difference with a combination of airstrikes and promises to avoid mission creep.”