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Obama is open to airstrikes on ISIS in Syria, wants to arm rebels

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(CNN) — President Barack Obama is open to conducting airstrikes in Syria to combat the ISIS terror group, U.S. officials say. But it’s unclear whether he will announce any such plan when he addresses the nation in a televised speech Wednesday night.

The President has already asked Congress for the authority to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels to fight ISIS, administration and congressional sources told CNN. Obama is seeking the authority under Title 10 of U.S. Code, which deals with military powers. His request was sent soon after he met with Congressional leadership Tuesday night.

The authority, if granted, would allow the U.S. to accept money from other countries as well for this purpose.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called on Congress to support the request.

“It is clear to me that we need to train and equip Syrian rebels and other groups in the Middle East that need some help,” Reid said Wednesday. “It is called Title 10 authority. The President has tried to get that from us and we should give it to him. That is one way of helping to build an international coalition. Congress should do that.”

Reid said “Republicans are worried” about the cost, but insisted “there is money to do that.”

He added, “Going it alone is not going to work.”

The request seems to contradict what the President has been saying. He told congressional leaders Tuesday he has the authority to carry out his planned strategy against ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria without authorization from legislators.

The White House has insisted he has all the authority he needs to use military force to strike at ISIS to protect Americans, aid the Iraqis, and provide humanitarian support.

Asked to explain, a democratic source said the authority Obama is requesting is not for use of military force, but rather to address a “legal anomaly” so the United States can help and train rebel forces.

Veteran diplomat: ISIS worse than al Qaeda

Former U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker, who served in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, told CNN Wednesday that he believes ISIS presents a bigger threat than al Qaeda.

“They are more numerous, they are better armed, they are far better financed, they are better experienced, and perhaps most critically there are several thousand of them who hold Western passports, including American passports. They don’t need to get a visa; they just need to get on a plane,” Crocker told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Wednesday.

“If we don’t think we’re on their target list, we are delusional.”

White House: Obama will present ‘comprehensive strategy’

In the speech Wednesday night, Americans will “hear from the President how the United States will pursue a comprehensive strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL, including U.S. military action and support for the forces combating ISIL on the ground — both the opposition in Syria and a new, inclusive Iraqi government,” the White House said in a statement Wednesday.

The group calling itself the Islamic State is known as ISIL, as well as ISIS.

“The President will discuss how we are building a coalition of Allies and partners in the region and in the broader international community to support our efforts, and will talk about how we work with the Congress as a partner in these efforts.”

Obama’s speech is scheduled for 9 p.m. ET.

The president plans to focus on three major areas, a senior administration official said. He will frame the threat; outline his strategy to address it, and share new proposals on how to fight and destroy the militant group, the official told CNN’s Jim Acosta on Tuesday.

The President will offer a big picture of how he views ISIS. He’ll explain that it has become a “core national security priority” and will say that ISIS cannot be allowed to secure a haven in a part of the world that is borderless, the official said.

Elements of the President’s plans for ISIS are a work in progress, the official cautioned.

Obama’s speech comes just days after he told reporters, “We don’t have a strategy yet.”

The Wednesday speech will provide Obama the opportunity to specify actions he has taken, such as building an international coalition that includes Arab partners from the region, and involving Iraqi forces along with potential Syrian rebel combat boots on the ground.

U.S. diplomatic efforts in the works this week could cause some specifics to evolve. Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Lisa Monaco, the homeland security adviser, are traveling to the Middle East this week.

Kerry left Tuesday to push Sunni leaders in Jordan and Saudi Arabia to join the United States and its allies in combating ISIS.

The senior administration official declined to elaborate on whether the President has decided to go ahead with airstrikes in Syria, but administration officials have said the problem must be dealt with on both sides of the border.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria militant group, which calls itself the “Islamic State,” operates in both nations mentioned in its title.

Show of unity with Congress would help

Obama has asked for congressional support to show the nation is united.

Obama believes the nation is stronger and its efforts more effective when he works with Congress to battle threats to national security, the White House said in a statement.

“The President told the leaders that he would welcome action by the Congress that would aid the overall effort and demonstrate to the world that the United States is united in defeating the threat,” the statement added.

Earlier, two senior legislators — one from each party — told CNN’s Dana Bash that a congressional vote on military action against the jihadists was unlikely despite calls for one by many of their colleagues.

Volatile issue before election could be politically risky

While some in Congress want to vote on the matter, taking up such a volatile issue as military action weeks before the November elections may be politically dangerous.

Obama has been criticized by conservatives and some Democrats for what they call a timid response so far to the threat by ISIS fighters who emerged from Syria to rampage through northern Iraq.

The President authorized airstrikes on ISIS targets in Iraq this year, but he faces pressure to expand the campaign to go after the extremists in Syria.

Obama and his top aides call such a military step one part of a broader strategy that includes establishing a stable representative government in Iraq, forming an international coalition that includes Middle East countries and increasing military aid to moderate opposition groups fighting the terror group in Syria.

The top Republicans and Democrats from the House and Senate — House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, along with Reid and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California — got the first glimpse of Obama’s plan to “degrade and defeat” ISIS at a White House meeting Tuesday.

Boehner said he would support Obama if the President deployed the U.S. military to help target ISIS leadership and train and advise Iraq forces.

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