US presses anti-IS campaign as Syria warns against 'attack'
The United States pressed Arab nations Thursday to join President Barack Obama's expanded campaign against jihadists in Iraq and Syria, but Damascus warned it would consider any action on its territory as an attack.
As Iraq's new unity government and the Syrian opposition welcomed Obama's plan, the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his most powerful ally Russia strongly condemned the move.
"Any action of any kind without the consent of the Syrian government would be an attack on Syria," National Reconciliation Minister Ali Haidar said.
In the Saudi port city of Jeddah, US Secretary of State John Kerry was meeting his counterparts from 10 Arab countries and Turkey to press them to join a broad coalition against the Islamic State (IS) jihadists.
Obama said late Wednesday he had ordered the US military to expand its operations against IS, a radical Islamist group that has seized a swathe of Iraq and Syria and committed horrifying atrocities.
"Our objective is clear: we will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy," Obama said in a television address, using an alternative acronym for the group.
"I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq."
Obama announced the dispatch of another 475 military personnel to help train Iraqi forces to take on IS, bringing the total number of American troops in the country to 1,600.
But he stressed the campaign would not be a repeat of the exhausting ground wars fought by US troops in the past decade.
Instead, Washington is looking to empower partners on the ground like Iraqi, Kurdish and Syrian rebels to fill in territory opened up by its air power.
Key to that strategy will be improving the effectiveness of Syrian rebels, and Obama called on Congress to swiftly authorise an operation to train and equip moderate fighters.
- Saudis seen as key -
In Jeddah, Kerry was seeking crucial backing for the US campaign, meeting his counterparts from the oil-rich Gulf monarchies, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and NATO member Turkey.
"Many of the countries are already taking action against ISIL," a State Department official said.
"But the trip by the Secretary is going to broaden the coalition and bring it into more focus and intensify the lines of effort."
The official said Saudi Arabia would be especially important to the effort "because of their size and economic importance but also because of their religious significance with Sunnis".
The "train and equip programme" for Syria's rebels would be a particular talking point with the Saudis, the official added.
Syria's opposition welcomed Obama's strategy, but urged Washington to take action against Assad as well as jihadists.
The opposition National Coalition said it had "long called" for action against IS and "warned time and again of the growing threat of this extremist group".
The US announcement was praised by Baghdad, where a unity government was formed on Monday to address grievances that contributed to the rise of the brutal jihadists.
"Iraq welcomes Obama's strategy about standing with it in its war against (IS) and the terrorist groups," said the office of Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi.
- Russia slams 'aggression' -
But Russia said unilateral action would be a blatant violation of international law.
"In the absence of an appropriate decision of the UN Security Council, such a step would become an act of aggression, a crude violation of the norms of international law," a foreign ministry spokesman said.
Britain said meanwhile that it would not join the US in air strikes on Syria, without ruling out similar action in Iraq.
The growing threat from Islamic State was made clear after the group seized large parts of Iraq in a lightning offensive in June, sweeping aside ineffective Iraqi forces.
It declared a "caliphate" in parts of Syria and Iraq under its control and has been accused of widespread atrocities, including beheadings, crucifixions, rapes and selling women into slavery.
Two captive US journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, were beheaded in recent weeks in videos released by the jihadists.
And on Thursday they kidnapped 20 people in a northern Iraqi village whom they suspected of grouping to fight them, security officials and witnesses said.
Kerry made an unannounced stopover on Wednesday in Baghdad where he expressed support for the new government of Abadi, a Shiite regarded as far less divisive than his predecessor Nuri al-Maliki, who was criticised for driving many in the Sunni minority into the arms of IS.
French President Francois Hollande will also head to Iraq on Friday for talks ahead of an international conference on Iraqi peace and security that Paris will host on Monday.
In another development, the United Nations said 45 Fijian peacekeepers kidnapped two weeks ago in the Golan Heights by Al-Qaeda-linked rebels were released Thursday and are in good condition.
© 2014 AFP