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Obama Hails Mideast Allies as Strikes in Syria Begin

Obama Hails Mideast Allies as Strikes in Syria Begin

By Alexis Simendinger - September 23, 2014

President Obama on Tuesday began a new and uncharted phase of his governance as a wartime leader, waging an offensive against terrorists with partners from Middle Eastern nations.

Hours after the United States, assisted by five Arab nations, conducted airstrikes inside Syria, the president saluted bipartisan congressional backers and warned the American people that terrorists with the Islamic State and an al-Qaeda-affiliate group pose near-term threats.

“There will be challenges ahead,” he said at the end of a brief statement at the White House before departing for events in New York this week, including the United Nations General Assembly.

The president thanked Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Bahrain for joining in the strikes, and to Qatar for a support role as part of a historic military collaboration to confront Sunni extremists operating from strongholds inside Syria. Together with allies, the United States deployed Tomahawk missiles, fighter jets and unmanned drones to attack targets in Iraq and deep in Syria as part of an offensive Pentagon officials said will continue beyond Obama’s tenure as president.

The United States, Obama revealed, also bombed “seasoned al-Qaeda operatives” in Syria -- terrorists he alleged were plotting to strike Western targets as a separate threat from the Islamic State.

The Pentagon said the U.S. military struck eight targets that were tied to the Khorasan Group, which is deemed by some counterterrorism experts to be a more ominous enemy than the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) because of its bomb-making expertise.

The sudden introduction of the Khorasan Group on Tuesday was surprising, as Obama had never mentioned them before. Details remained scarce about the intelligence community’s worries that sophisticated and hard-to-detect attacks using explosives have reached “an advanced stage.” That was a description offered by one senior administration official.

“This is something that has very much been on our radar for several months,” one senior administration official told reporters on a background conference call. He said the confluence of ISIL and Khorasan Group targets that were attacked Monday developed as a result of intelligence information.

The administration has for weeks said there was no credible information to suggest the U.S. homeland is at risk from ISIL terrorists, and the Khorasan Group was never identified by the president during recent public discussions about al-Qaeda-descendent operatives who have staked out safe havens in Iraq and in Syria.

The president has argued since his address to the nation Sept. 10 that he has the constitutional and legal authority to wage war without seeking approval from Congress, based on the post-9/11 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, crafted by Congress with al-Qaeda in mind. Although Obama last year called for the overhaul or elimination of the AUMF, it remains in place and the administration says the commander-in-chief is relying on it.

It was unclear Tuesday whether all five Arab nations would continue to partner with the U.S. Central Command for the duration of what officials called a “credible and sustainable” counterterrorism operation.

The damage inflicted Monday night on targets was still being assessed. Pentagon officials made no claims about how many ISIL or other extremists were killed or capabilities degraded. The aim, officials explained, was to disrupt bases of operations during the initial strikes. Enemy leaders were not specifically targeted, the Defense Department maintained.  

The administration said it notified the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad, who considers ISIL a foe, about the air attacks as the operation commenced. The administration advised the regime that it should not interfere with the airstrikes.

The coalition completed initial attacks inside Syria with “minimal collateral damage,” Lt. Gen. William C. Mayville Jr. added during a Pentagon briefing. A military spokesman told reporters later that 95 percent of the allied strikes used precision-guided munitions.

Congress, which voted this month to approve training and arming Syrian rebels over the next year, has recessed until after the November elections. When lawmakers return in December, they may debate Obama’s authorization to continue a war against the ISIL. The president and senior administration officials notified congressional leaders and committee chairs by phone and in writing about the offensive in Syria.

Almost as an afterthought in a written news release Tuesday, the Pentagon announced it had bombed targets west of Aleppo in Syria “to disrupt the imminent attack plotting against the United States and Western interests” by the Khorasan Group, “a network of seasoned al Qaeda veterans.”

The eight U.S. strikes against the Khorasan targets, DoD said, included “training camps, an explosives and munitions production facility, a communication building and command and control facilities.”  

On Wednesday, the president plans to convene a special United Nations Security Council meeting devoted to threats posed by fighters from the West who have joined forces with ISIL and other terror groups. If those fighters return to their home countries, they could attack from within, world leaders have warned.

In arguing that “America stands united” and by referencing an imminent potential threat to the homeland, Obama tapped Americans’ heightened anxieties about terrorism, even as the public says it is tired of war and believes the United States cannot continue to police Middle East tensions.

Nonetheless, six in 10 Americans say they are very concerned about the rise of Islamic terrorism around the world, the highest share since 2007, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in a report released Sept. 10.

The national unity the president mentioned does not mean there are no political divisions as the Nobel Peace Prize winner shifts to a war footing. Republicans express much more concern than Democrats (71 percent v. 46 percent) about the rise of Islamic extremism inside the United States, and the divisions on Capitol Hill within the president’s party were evident last week.

After launching a war on terror in Iraq in 2003 -- 18 months after the 9/11 attacks -- President Bush’s job approval rose by 14 points, to 71 percent, before beginning a slow descent, the Gallup Organization reported at the time. Obama, whose job approval ratings are hovering in the low- to mid-40s, is unlikely to see a similar spike under current circumstances.

Most political analysts have predicted that foreign policy, terrorism and allied air assaults in the Middle East are unlikely to significantly alter election outcomes in six weeks.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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