Syrian National Coalition backs US intervention against ISIS

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US Secretary of State John Kerry, center, looks over papers while flying from Jordan to Iraq on September 10, 2014 where he met with new members of the Iraqi government. (Photo: AFP - Brendan Smialowski)

Published Thursday, September 11, 2014

Updated at 4:15 pm (GMT+3): Syria's Western-backed National Coalition opposition on Thursday said it was ready to work with the United States against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants after President Barack Obama authorized US airstrikes for the first time in Syria.

Saying it had "long called for this action" and had repeatedly warned about ISIS, the coalition called again for its military wing, the Free Syrian Army, to receive support to form a "reliable and well-equipped force."

"We urge the US Congress to approve the president's policy as soon as possible, and to allow the training and equipping of Free Syrian Army," coalition president Hadi al-Bahra said in a written statement.

The coalition, which is based in Turkey, has received support and recognition from the Western powers and Gulf states who are among Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's most vocal opponents, but has struggled to win support on the ground.

Meanwhile, hardline Islamist groups, including the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, have come to dominate the battlefield.

The coalition also said it was "equally important" to assign blame to the Assad government as "the root cause of the violence, brutality, and sense of impunity prevailing in Syria," and urged action against it as well.

"The Syrian Coalition ... stands ready and willing to partner with the international community not only to defeat ISIS but also rid the Syrian people of the tyranny of the Assad regime," it said.

"Combating ISIS alone cannot bring about a stable and extremist free region," it said.

US to hunt down ISIS “wherever they are”: Obama

On Wednesday, Obama said he had authorized US airstrikes for the first time in Syria and more attacks in Iraq in a broad escalation of a campaign against ISIS.

Obama's decision to launch attacks inside Syria, which is embroiled in a three-year civil war, was done without the consent of the Syrian government.

Obama said he would hunt down ISIS militants "wherever they are" in a drive to degrade and ultimately destroy the group, which has seized broad stretches of Iraq and Syria.

"That means I will not hesitate to take action against (ISIS) in Syria, as well as Iraq. This is a core principle of my presidency: if you threaten America, you will find no safe haven," he said, framing ISIS as a danger to the West more so than to the people living in regions directly threatened by ISIS.

Obama asked Congress to authorize $500 million to train and arm "moderate" Syrian rebels. The training would take place in Saudi Arabia.

It is unclear whether more American weapons and training can shift the battlefield balance toward the US-backed rebels, who are badly outgunned by ISIS, other militant groups and Assad's forces.

Critics opposed to US involvement in the conflict with ISIS have pointed out that Washington in partnership with its Gulf allies, including Saudi Arabia, played a role in the formation and expansion of extremist groups like ISIS by arming, financing and politically empowering armed opposition groups in Syria.

A vote on the money would put lawmakers on record supporting the military action, although White House officials stressed Obama already had the authority he needed for the new moves.

Obama plans to expand the list of targets inside Iraq beyond several isolated areas. The US military has launched more than 150 airstrikes in Iraq in the past month.

The new target list will allegedly include ISIS's "leadership, logistical and operational capability," as well as an attempt to "deny it sanctuary and resources to plan, prepare and execute attacks," the White House said.

US officials have warned it will take years to destroy ISIS, and Obama told Americans: "It will take time to eradicate a cancer like ISIL," the White House's acronym for the militant group.

Obama will send 475 more American advisers to Iraq, which will bring to 1,600 the number there. Obama, allegedly determined to avoid a repeat of the Iraq war, stressed they would not engage in combat.

The president laid out his emerging plan for tackling the group two weeks after coming under fire for saying: "We don't have a strategy yet" for the group in Syria and six months after declaring that groups like ISIS were minor players.

The US view of the threat from ISIS now is that foreign fighters who have sworn allegiance to the group could return to their home countries and launch attacks against civilian targets, including in the United States. ISIS fighters beheaded two American captives in the past month, shocking Americans who have demanded Obama retaliate.

"Our intelligence community believes that thousands of foreigners - including Europeans and some Americans - have joined them in Syria and Iraq. Trained and battle-hardened, these fighters could try to return to their home countries and carry out deadly attacks," Obama said.

Training camps in Saudi Arabia

In a significant move that could help rally Gulf states behind the US-led coalition, key ally Saudi Arabia will host a US training effort for Syrian rebels inside its territory, senior US officials said.

The effort is dependent on the US Congress approving the $500 million for the rebels.

The funding request generally has broad support.

The Saudi decision emerged after Obama spoke by phone earlier in the day with Saudi King Abdullah, who has pressed the American government to do more resolve the Syrian conflict.

Obama, vowing he would not send US combat forces back to the region, said he was building a broad anti-ISIS coalition involving pro-Western governments in the region and Western allies.

The Syrian government and Iran have not been included in US-led efforts to combat ISIS.

US officials want allies to join in attacks on the group as well as in training and equipping Iraqi forces and Syrian rebels, and providing humanitarian relief and intelligence.

What specifically each nation will do in the coalition remains to be hammered out. Secretary of State John Kerry is meeting Gulf allies in the region and Obama is to host a leaders' security conference at the UN General Assembly in two weeks with the aim of fleshing out duties of the coalition.

Before the focus on ISIS, Obama for months had been cool to the notion of arming the poorly organized Syrian rebels.

But he now needs the rebels to become strong enough to hold ground cleared by US airstrikes, just as Iraqi forces are doing in Iraq.

US officials pushed back hard against the notion that striking ISIS strongholds in Syria would unintentionally help Assad. They claimed that the areas in the eastern part of the country held by the militants were not places where Assad supporters would be able to take advantage to regain control.

Meanwhile, Kerry called the new Iraqi government led by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi "the heart and backbone" of the fight against ISIS.

"The coalition that is at the heart of our global strategy I assure you will continue to grow and deepen in the days ahead ... because the United States and the world will simply not stand by to watch as ISIL's evil spread,." he said.

"A new and inclusive Iraqi government has to be the engine of our global strategy against ISIL. Now the Iraqi parliament has approved a new cabinet with new leaders, with representation from all Iraqi communities, it's full steam ahead."

Abadi formed his government on Monday in what was billed as a break from the more abrasive style of his predecessor Nouri al-Maliki, whose policies were blamed by many Iraqis for fuelling sectarianism and pushing the country to the brink of collapse.

ISIS fighters seized large chunks of Iraq's north and west this year, welcomed by many of the Iraq’s Sunni minority, who blamed the government for targeting them with indiscriminate arrests and discriminatory policies.

However, Sunnis who fled the violence near the northern town of Amerli are being prevented from returning home and some have had their houses pillaged and torched. Many have also been killed by ISIS militants.

Unlike his predecessor, Abadi enjoys the support of nearly all of Iraq's major political groups, and the two most influential outside powers, Iran and the United States.

But on Wednesday, prominent cleric Muqtada al-Sadr said Iraq should not cooperate with "occupiers", a reference to the United States.

It is unclear what steps will be taken to strengthen the Iraqi army after its collapse in the face of an ISIS onslaught in June. A senior US official said tentative plans for a new National Guard unit, announced by Abadi on Monday, were intended to deprive ISIS of safe havens by handing over security to the provinces.

Kerry was to meet Jordan's King Abdullah later on Wednesday, and travel on Thursday to Saudi Arabia for talks that will include Egypt, Turkey, Jordan and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which comprises Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar.

Arab League foreign ministers agreed on Sunday to take all necessary measures to confront ISIS.

(Reuters, Al-Akhbar, AFP)


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