Saudi Arabia has agreed to an American request to provide a base to train moderate Syrian opposition fighters, American officials said on Wednesday. "We now have the commitment from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to be a full partner in this effort -- the train-and-equip program -- to host that program," said a senior Obama administration official, who added that discussions were underway to determine the specific site and other details. The Saudi willingness to host a training program comes as Secretary of State John Kerry is preparing to fly to Jidda, Saudi Arabia, on Thursday morning for a high-level strategy session on how to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
If nothing else, the political world's conversation can now shift. Instead of handwringing about whether President Obama has a strategy to confront Islamic State, the discussion can now turn to considering the White House plan on its merits.
In a primetime address, the president spelled out a fairly broad objective -- to "degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy" -- and presented the four parts of his larger plan.
1. "First, we will conduct a systematic campaign of airstrikes against these terrorists."
2, "Second, we will increase our support to forces fighting these terrorists on the ground."
3. "Third, we will continue to draw on our substantial counterterrorism capabilities to prevent ISIL attacks."
4. "Fourth, we will continue to provide humanitarian assistance to innocent civilians who have been displaced by this terrorist organization."
Ordinarily, in a speech like this, it might seem as if Americans can now expect a new war -- or something akin to war -- to get underway, with a "shock and awe" moment poised to unfold. But these are a different set of circumstances -- the truth is, the "systematic campaign of airstrikes" began over a month ago. For that matter, we've also been taking steps to prevent attacks, while at the same time, providing humanitarian assistance to victims.
So what's different? What's clearly new is the expanded scope of the offensive, with Obama saying for the first time last night that ISIS targets in Syria are now part of his plan. The administration also seems eager to vastly bolster support to opposition forces, a move that carries its own dramatic risks.
Just as important was the president's reference to "a broad coalition of partners," with some significant developments on this front overnight.
In case it's not obvious, developments like these are critical. In Iraq, Obama patiently held off intervention, using possible airstrikes as a diplomatic tool, forcing an overhaul of Iraq's political structure. It's been largely successful -- Iraqi forces, at least recently, have been able to capitalize on U.S. air support -- but there is no parallel in Syria.
As for Congress' role, Obama's speech told Americans, "I have the authority to address the threat from ISIL, but I believe we are strongest as a nation when the president and Congress work together. So I welcome congressional support for this effort in order to show the world that Americans are united in confronting this danger."
Or put another way, the White House doesn't intend to wait for lawmakers, but if they're prepared to get engaged, he'd "welcome" their backing.
Is that likely? More on this later.
Sept. 11, 2014