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Obama just opened the door to airstrikes in Iraq

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

On Thursday afternoon, President Obama announced that he would send up to 300 American military advisers to Iraq as part of his larger effort to address the crisis there. The advisers' goal will be to help the Iraqi army gather and interpret intelligence that will help them fight the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), which has taken over large parts of the country. While Obama did not explicitly say he was considering air strikes, those military advisers could also potentially be used to lay the groundwork for US airstrikes if Obama decides to launch them in the near future.

Obama's address laid out the first clear American policy responses to the growing crisis in Iraq. There are five prongs to that response. First, secure the US embassy in Baghdad. Second, devote more surveillance assets — drones, satellites — to Iraq. Third, push for political reform in Iraq, to make the Shia government more accommodating to the Sunni minority from which ISIS draws recruits and supports. Fourth, deploy US military assets to the region in case they're needed. Fifth, deploy 300 US military advisers to aid the Iraqi army in intelligence gathering.

That last policy could be a big step toward the US airstrikes hinted at by the fourth. The advisers would be deployed to "joint operation centers" on the ground to coordinate US and Iraqi intelligence on the conflict. Previous reports on Obama's thinking suggested that he had ruled out airstrikes in the near term because of a lack of intelligence about who to bomb. These centers could solve that problem, enabling the US to launch air strikes if and when Obama decides to.

Obama did leave limited military action on the table in his remarks, saying, "Going forward, we will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it." That presumably means air strikes, as Obama said that American troops wouldn't enter direct combat. The US military assets Obama moved into the region include destroyers armed with cruise missiles.

The president ruled out the return of US troops to direct combat roles in Iraq. He also said that "there is no military solution inside Iraq, certainly one led by the United States." His remarks repeatedly emphasized that a more inclusive Iraqi government, one that better respected the interests of Sunni Arab and Kurdish minorities as well as the Shia Arab majority, would be necessary to address the actual causes of ISIS' rise.

Obama also compared the situation in Iraq to Yemen, where the US has conducted a fairly extensive counterterrorism campaign against al-Qaeda affiliated insurgents. The Yemeni government, according to Obama, has been a good partner for this kind of operation. The implication seems to be that a reformed Iraqi government would be more likely to receive American air support. In other words, fix your politics and we'll do more to help.

All in all, the speech sounded a more hawkish tone than his last set of remarks on the topic. "The fate of Iraq hangs in the balance," he said near the end of the speech. Obama may be starting to think America can help tip it.