Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey said Thursday that U.S. airstrikes against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant forces will be limited to Iraq for the time being, but the ISIL threat eventually will have to be confronted at its core in Syria.
At a Pentagon briefing, Hagel and Dempsey appeared to be preparing a war-weary American public for what they believe will be a long-term struggle to defeat ISIL and affiliated groups. They also warned that ISIL militants could strike inside the U.S.
U.S. airstrikes in the Sinjar mountains and around the Mosul dam had "stalled ISIL's momentum," Hagel said, but "We expect ISIL to regroup and stage new offensives."
"This group is beyond anything we've ever seen" since the 9/11 terror attacks in terms of financing, organization, recruiting and tactical ability, Hagel said. "Yes, they're an imminent threat" to the U.S., Hagel said.
In addition to ISIL, there was an arc of terrorist groups stretching from Afghanistan to West Africa that posed a threat to the U.S. and must be faced, Dempsey said. "That's going to be a very long contest," Dempsey said.
Congressional Republicans, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have pressed for the expansion of the air campaign to hit ISIL bases in Syria, but Hagel and Dempsey suggested that a wider air campaign was not imminent. Hagel said that President Obama was concerned about "mission creep" and "he will not allow it."
Hagel and Dempsey pointed to the $500 million in the proposed Overseas Contingency Operations budget to build up "moderate" elements of the Syrian opposition as a way to degrade ISIL's strength in Syria. However, Dempsey said that the ultimate defeat of ISIL in Syria would only come "when we have a coalition in the region" willing to unite against the extremists.
In Iraq Thursday, U.S. warplanes continued to attack ISIL targets. The U.S. Central Command said that the aircraft destroyed or damaged three ISIL Humvees, one ISIL vehicle, and multiple improvised explosive device emplacements.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org