WASHINGTON — After presiding at a meeting of his National Security Council in the Pentagon today, President Barack Obama said Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant leaders know they will lose in Syria and Iraq, and they are already shifting their strategy in advance of that sure defeat.
This was the most recent of the president’s meetings to emphasize the whole-of-government approach needed to defeat ISIL.
Local forces have made significant progress against ISIL in Iraq and Syria, the president said. They have taken key territory from ISIL and are preparing campaigns against ISIL in Mosul. In Syria, he said, they are choking off the last entry to the ISIL stronghold of Raqqa.
“In fact, the decline of ISIL in Syria and Iraq appears to be causing it to shift to tactics that we’ve seen before -- an even greater emphasis on encouraging high-profile terrorist attacks, including in the United States,” Obama said at a news conference after the meeting. “As always, our military, diplomatic, intelligence, homeland security, and law enforcement professionals are working around the clock, with other countries and with communities here at home, to share information and prevent such attacks, and over the years, they’ve prevented many.”
Still, nothing can be certain or foolproof, the president said. “It is still very difficult to detect and prevent lone actors or small cells of terrorists who are determined to kill the innocent and are willing to die,” he added. “And that's why, as we discussed today, we’re going to keep going after ISIL aggressively across every front of this campaign.”
The military portion of the counter-ISIL strategy is showing great progress, the president said. The coalition air campaign continues to hit ISIL targets wherever the terrorists try to hide. American pilots are doing their absolute best to avoid civilian casualties, he said, in stark contrast to ISIL, which uses noncombatants as shields.
“With our extraordinary technology, we’re conducting the most precise air campaign in history,” Obama said.
Coalition and local forces continue to take out senior ISIL leaders and commanders, the president said, and this is having an effect on the organization’s command and control and its discipline. “None of ISIL’s leaders are safe, and we are going to keep going after them,” he said.
ISIL Losing Ground
The terror group continues to lose ground in Iraq and Syria, Obama said. Iraqi forces have taken Fallujah and are pushing up the Euphrates River valley. They are also pushing up the Tigris River, taking Qayyarah, and are poised to launch an offensive against Mosul – the largest city still under ISIL control.
“Meanwhile in Syria,” Obama said, “a coalition of local forces backed by our special operations forces and airstrikes continues to take the fight to ISIL as well. The coalition is fighting its way into the town of Manbij, a gateway for ISIL fighters coming in and terrorists heading out to attack Europe, which is why ISIL was fighting hard to hold it.”
The successes against ISIL mean more intelligence the coalition can exploit to further take the fight to ISIL, the president said. “We also continue intense fire efforts against al-Qaida in Syria, which, no matter what name it calls itself, cannot be allowed to maintain a safe haven to train and plot attacks against us,” he added.
Two years ago, many in the Middle East saw ISIL as invincible, the president said, but not so much today. “ISIL has not had a major successful offensive operation in either Syria or Iraq in a full year,” he said.
ISIL Knows It is Losing
“Even ISIL’s leaders know they're going to keep losing. In their message to followers, they're increasingly acknowledging that they may lose Mosul and Raqqa, and ISIL is right,” he continued. “They will lose them. And we’ll keep hitting them and pushing them back and driving them out until they do.”
A plan is in place for the “day after” ISIL is gone, the president said. The Iraqi government, aided by coalition countries, will provide services to its people in areas formerly held by the terror group, he explained.
In Syria, the situation is more complex, Obama acknowledged, because ISIL and al-Qaida can hide in the clutter of the civil war going on there. The Assad regime has earned the condemnation of the world, he said, and Russia must work with the world community to pull the situation back from the brink.
“The U.S. remains prepared to work with Russia to try to reduce the violence and strengthen our efforts against ISIL and al-Qaida in Syria, but so far Russia has failed to take the necessary steps,” the president said. “Given the deteriorating situation, it is time for Russia to show that it is serious about pursuing these objectives.”
ISIL has raised its hateful flag in other areas, the president said. In Libya, U.S. airstrikes are helping forces loyal to the Government of National Accord in taking the ISIL stronghold of Sirte. Obama said U.S. aircraft will continue the mission.
In Afghanistan, American service members will work with Afghan forces to find and eliminate members of the group, he added.
Whole of Government
As he has been saying for years, Obama told reporters, military power alone is not enough, and more is needed to get to the root of this extremist ideology.
“So long as their twisted ideology persists and drives people to violence, then groups like ISIL will keep emerging, and the international community will continue to be at risk in getting sucked into the kind of global ‘whack-a-mole,’ where we’re always reacting to the latest threat or a lone actor,” he said.
The United States and allies – including most of the countries in the Islamic world – are working to counter violent extremism more broadly, Obama said. This includes addressing the social, economic and political factors that help to fuel groups such as ISIL and al-Qaida in the first place.
“Nothing will do more to discredit ISIL and its phony claims to being a caliphate than when it loses its base in Raqqa and in Mosul,” he said. “And we’re going to keep working with partners, including Muslim countries and communities, especially online, to expose ISIL for what they are: murderers who kill innocent people, including Muslim families and children as they break the Ramadan fast, and who set off bombs in Medina near the Prophet’s Mosque, one of the holiest sites in Islam.”
The president said the United States must do a better job of “draining” the ideology that is behind the attacks. The ideology emanates from the Middle East and appeals to a very small proportion of Muslims, he said, but the ideology “has been turbocharged over the internet, and combating that will take time as old orders collapse and new ones are born.”
How Americans respond to this threat is as important as the efforts to destroy ISIL and prevent these networks from penetrating, the president said. “The reason it is called terrorism, as opposed to a standard war,” he said, “is because these are weak enemies that can’t match us in conventional power, but what they can do is make us scared.
“When societies get scared, they can act in ways to undermine the fabric of our society,” he continued. “It makes us weaker and more vulnerable and creates politics that divide us and hurt us over the long run. If we remain steady and steadfast and vigilant, but also take the long view and take the perspective and remind ourselves of who we are and what we care about most deeply and cherish and what’s good about this country, … then we’ll be OK.”
Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Ash Carter, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were among the 32 people who attended the meeting. Secretary of State John Kerry attended via secure video connection.
Others from DoD were Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work, and Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Army Gen. Joseph Votel, the commander of U.S. Central Command, attended the meeting via secure video.