The US and nine key allies agreed on Friday that the Islamic State group is a significant threat to NATO countries and that NATO would take on the militants by squeezing their financial resources and going after them with military might.
With the Islamic State militants spreading across eastern Syria and northern and western Iraq, US President Barack Obama said that the moderate Syrian rebels fighting both the group and the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are “outgunned and outmanned.”
In addition to the action pledged by fellow NATO leaders, he pressed Arab allies to reject the “nihilism” projected by the group formerly known as the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (ISIL).
The new NATO coalition would be able to mount a sustained effort to push back the extremists, Obama said. The US secretaries of state and defense, meeting with their counterparts at the international gathering, insisted that Western nations build a plan by the time the UN General Assembly meets this month.
“I did not get any resistance or pushback to the basic notion that we have a critical role to play in rolling back this savage organization that is causing so much chaos in the region and is harming so many people and poses a long-term threat to the safety and security of NATO members,” Obama said at the summit conclusion. “So there’s great conviction that we have to act, as part of the international community, to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL, and that was extremely encouraging.”
Laying out a strategy for Iraq, Obama hinted at a broader military campaign, likening it to the way US forces pushed back al-Qaeda along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, taking out the group’s leadership, shrinking its territory and pounding at its followers. To do that, the US used persistent airstrikes, usually by CIA drones.
So far, US airstrikes in Iraq have been largely limited to helping Kurdish forces and protecting refugees, but Obama has set a goal of dismantling and destroying the Islamic State, and said on Friday that the US would continue to hunt down the militants just as it did with al-Qaeda and with al-Shabaab in Somalia.
US Secretary of State John Kerry is to head to the Middle East this week and he expects to expand the coalition beyond Western nations, per Obama’s vision.
“I think it is absolutely critical that we have Arab states and specifically Sunni-majority states that are rejecting the kind of extremist nihilism that we’re seeing out of ISIL, that say that is not what Islam is about and are prepared to join us actively in the fight,” Obama said.
The Islamic State espouses a radical form of Sunni Islam and initially invaded Iraq to fight its Shiite government.
“What we can accomplish is to dismantle this network, this force that has claimed to control this much territory, so that they can’t do us harm,” Obama said.
He added that US ground troops in Syria are not needed to accomplish the goal, but instead can work with moderate partners on the ground in the country.
“They have been, to some degree, outgunned and outmanned. And that’s why it’s important for us to work with our friends and allies to support them more effectively,” Obama said.
In a meeting with the foreign and defense ministers from the coalition countries, Kerry said that leaders need a clear idea about what each country will contribute to the fight.
“We very much hope that people will be as declarative as some of our friends around the table have been in order to be clear about what they’re willing to commit, because we must be able to have a plan together by the time we come to [the UN General Assembly],” said Kerry. “We need to have this coalesce.”
US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, sitting alongside Kerry, said the group forms a loose coalition that will be needed to face the insurgent challenge. He said the group can then be expanded. Along with the US, the coalition includes the UK, France, Australia, Germany, Canada, Turkey, Italy, Poland and Denmark.
Later, French President Francois Hollande said that France was discussing with allies what type of action might be taken.
“France is ready to act, but once the political accord is there and in respect to international law,” Hollande said.
A senior Obama administration official said on Thursday that the US wanted to establish a credible ground force in Syria by training more moderate rebels before taking military action there. A US$500 million request is pending in Congress.