As a U.S.-led coalition continues military operations against extremists in the Middle East, President Obama on Monday stressed that defeating the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL) will depend on local cooperation.
"The strong consensus is in order for us to succeed... we have to develop local security forces that can sustain progress," Mr. Obama said from the Pentagon after receiving a briefing from military leaders. "If we try to do everything ourselves, all across the Middle East, all across North Africa, we'll be playing whack-a-mole."
There are no current plans to send more American troops overseas, Mr. Obama said. However, he added, "I've always said that I'm going to do what's necessary to protect the homeland."
That said, "it is not enough for us to simply send in American troops to temporarily set back organizations like ISIL, but to then, as soon as we leave, see that void filled once again with extremists," the president continued. "It is going to be vital for us to make sure that we are preparing the kinds of local ground forces and security forces with our partners that can not only succeed against ISIL, but then sustain in terms of security and in terms of governance."
The U.S.-led coalition against ISIS carried out sustained airstrikes in Syria over the weekend, and Mr. Obama on Monday said it's "important for us to recognize the progress that's been made." After more than 5,000 airstrikes against it, ISIS over the past year has lost more than a quarter of the populated areas that it had seized in Iraq. The group has also suffered losses in Syria, including losing access to a key supply route to the city of Raqqa, its base of operations in Syria.
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"ISIL's recent losses in both Syria and Iraq prove that ISIL can and will be defeated," Mr. Obama said, noting that the coalition is intensifying efforts against the group's base in Syria.
Additionally, Mr. Obama said the U.S. is ramping up training and support of local forces fighting ISIS on the ground, an aspect of the counter-extremism strategy that was previously "moving too slowly," he said. The fall of Ramadi "galvanized" the Iraqi government, he said, and more Sunni volunteers are coming forward to fight. As the U.S. accelerates the delivery of equipment to these forces, Mr. Obama said he also wants the U.S. to do more to train and equip the moderate opposition in Syria.
Even as the U.S. steps up its efforts, gains more partners and makes incremental progress in the fight against ISIS, Mr. Obama stressed, "this is a long-term campaign."
ISIS "is opportunistic and it is nimble," he said.
"It's dug in among innocent civilian populations," he continued, and "it will take time to root them out."
"No amount of military force will end the terror that is ISIL unless it's matched by a broader effort, political and economic, that addresses the underlying conditions that have allowed ISIL to gain traction," Mr. Obama said. "They have filled a void and we have to make sure that, as we push them out, that void is filled."
That includes countering the group's "hateful propaganda," he said. For its part, the U.S. will "constantly reaffirm through words and deeds that we will never be at war with Islam while fighting terrorists who distort Islam and whose victims are mostly Muslims."
Mr. Obama called the fight against the group's extremist ideology ultimately "a generational struggle."
The president acknowledged that so far, ISIS has been "particularly effective" at recruiting vulnerable people around the world, including in the U.S. He cited the case of two men who opened fire in Garland, Texas earlier this year.
"Because of our success over the years in improving our homeland security, we've made it harder for terrorists to carry out large-scale attacks like 9/11 here at home," he said. "But the threat of lone wolves or small cells of terrorists is complex. It's harder to detect and harder to prevent. It's one of the most different challenges that we face... We're going to have to pick up our game to prevent these attacks."
As the U.S. continues to shape its strategy against ISIS, Mr. Obama said Congress should do its part by confirming his nominee for Treasury undersecretary, Adam Szubin.
"This is a vital position to our counterterrorism efforts," he said. "Nobody suggests Mr. Szubin is not qualified; he's highly qualified. Unfortunately, his nomination has been languishing up on the Hill. And we need the Senate to confirm him as soon as possible."