Obama eyes air strikes in Syria, fixing Iraqi Army

President Barack Obama was expected to tell Americans Wednesday he is ready to launch air strikes against the Islamic State in Syria, in a prime-time address steeling them for a long duel with the jihadists.

AFP| Last Updated: Sep 11, 2014, 03:00 AM IST

Washington: President Barack Obama was expected to tell Americans Wednesday he is ready to launch air strikes against the Islamic State in Syria, in a prime-time address steeling them for a long duel with the jihadists.

In the much-anticipated speech, given blanket coverage on television networks, Obama will also announce plans to rebuild Iraq`s splintered army, and to arm and train moderate rebels in Syria.

Ahead of the 9:00 pm (0100 GMT Thursday) speech, Obama spoke to Saudi King Abdullah, underlining Riyadh`s crucial role in an anti-IS front, and reached out to lawmakers to seek Congressional support for his plans.

France offered Obama a well-timed boost, saying it was prepared to join an already launched US air campaign against IS in Iraq if necessary.

A senior US official said Obama would announce "a comprehensive strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy" IS.

The plan will include US military action against Islamic State forces, as well as new support for the opposition in Syria and the new government in Iraq.

The New York Times said Obama was ready to sign off on air strikes in Syria to complement those carried out on Islamic State targets in Iraq.

The White House would not confirm the report, but lent it credibility by refusing to deny it.

In Iraq, meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry promised that the country`s armed forces, some of which fled when IS marched into western Sunni districts, would be "reconstituted and trained and worked on."Obama and Abdullah "agreed on the need for increased training and equipping of the moderate Syrian opposition," the White House said in a statement.

"Both leaders agreed that a stronger Syrian opposition is essential to confronting extremists like ISIL as well as the Assad regime, which has lost all legitimacy."

The call represented a potentially significant development in the crisis, as Obama for months opposed sending lethal weapons into the Syrian civil war, citing the difficulty of identifying true moderates and fearing they could end up in the hands of extremists.

In a related development, Obama also freed up $25 million to equip Iraqi government and Kurdish troops to fight IS. Obama has repeatedly told Americans that after "ending" the US war in Iraq to honor a key campaign promise, he will not send US ground troops back into combat in the country.

But he has not ruled out sending US trainers to help prepare Iraqi forces -- stood up at the cost of billions of US taxpayer dollars after the 2003 US invasion.

Kerry praised the new Iraqi government of Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, which Washington says has the potential to offer the "inclusive" rule across sectarian divides that the former administration of Nuri al-Maliki failed to provide.

But the sectarian stew facing Abadi was underlined when bombs killed 19 people in Baghdad during Kerry`s visit.

The Pentagon said the US military had now conducted 154 strikes against IS in Iraq, and destroyed 212 targets, including armed vehicles and weapons systems.

In Syria, the prominent Ahrar al-Sham opposition group named new leaders to replace those killed in a blast at a meeting of its top religious and military chiefs in the northeastern Syrian province of Idlib.

The group, which is ideologically conservative despite not backing IS, had been seen as a bridge between more moderate and radical streams of the opposition.

Analysts said the attack threatened the cohesion of the Islamic Front opposition coalition, but it was unclear if it would benefit Islamic State or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad`s forces.Obama has devoted much of his presidency to avoiding new long-term entanglements in the Middle East.

But the plan he will lay out on Wednesday will be open-ended and the campaign could outlast his presidency, which ends in January 2017.

"I think the American people need to expect that this is something that will require a sustained commitment," said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.

The address will come at a poignant time -- on the eve of the 13th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, when Islamic radicalism on a mass scale scorched the US homeland for the first time.

Obama, who has seen his personal approval ratings and public confidence in his foreign policy tumble, may seek to exploit a seam of increasingly hawkish public opinion on Syria.

A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll suggests the US public was increasingly hawkish about IS, with two-thirds of those asked saying they backed military operations against the group.

The White House insists that IS, despite beheading two US journalists, does not yet pose an imminent threat to the US homeland.

But officials worry the group could eventually send some of its legions of foreign fighters, armed with Western passports, to stage attacks in America.

Obama previewed his speech in a meeting with top congressional leaders on Tuesday, and then Wednesday huddled with defense and intelligence chiefs in the White House Situation Room.

Officials said he believes he has sufficient authority to carry out his new strategy without asking Congress for a new war authorization.

But he wants lawmakers to vote on $500 million in funding for Syrian rebels -- which he first requested in June -- before they leave town soon ahead of November`s mid-term elections.

Republicans have used Obama`s public deliberation over what to do about IS to drive a narrative that the president is weak and disengaged.

"Our president must understand we are at war and that we must do what it takes, for as long as it takes, to win," hawkish former vice president Dick Cheney said Wednesday.