Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey gave mixed reviews Thursday to the progress made by U.S. and Iraq forces in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
The top U.S. military officials said the U.S. and Iraqis have suffered setbacks in efforts to protect Sunni tribes in Iraq and form a "moderate" opposition force in Syria.
"We are constantly assessing and reassessing and adapting" on a strategy to defeat ISIS that Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, has said will take three to four years, Hagel said at a Pentagon briefing with Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Hagel said that the "complicated" and evolving strategy depended on holding together a fractious coalition of Middle Eastern countries committed to the main goal of rooting out ISIS.
"We've got to manage through the realities of what we have in front of us with some longer-term strategies," Hagel said. "We're constantly working through options."
Dempsey said he was aware of reports that ISIS earlier this week had massacred more than 200 members of the Sunni Albu Nimr tribe in Anbar province who sought to rise up against the extremists by allying themselves with the Iraqi Security Forces.
"That's what we're dealing with. That's why we're engaging the Sunni tribes," Dempsey said. "Yes, these things are happening. Yes, it's difficult. Yes, we're dealing with it."
Dempsey said he could not confirm whether the Albu Nimr tribe had asked for U.S. airstrikes to repel ISIS. "I'm not aware if they made a request of us," Dempsey said.
Dempsey and Hagel said they were pressing Iraqi leaders to form a National Guard that would incorporate the Sunni tribes of Anbar in the fight against ISIS.
Despite setbacks, Hagel noted recent gains made by Iraqi and Kurdish forces against ISIS. However, he said that the Iraqis were not yet prepared to undertake a major offensive.
"The initial progress is encouraging but these are first steps" in a long struggle, Hagel said.
The situation in Syria was even more complicated, with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad possibly the beneficiary of U.S. airstrikes against ISIS, Hagel and Dempsey said.
"The Syrian equation is part of the bigger picture in the Mideast," Hagel said. "Yes, Assad derives some benefit of that, of course," Hagel said of the airstrikes in Syria that have concentrated on the northern Syrian town of Kobani, where Kurdish fighters have been holding off an ISIS assault for more than a month.
Dempsey added that the U.S. has yet to enroll any recruits for the proposed "moderate" force that would work with the opposition Free Syrian Army in a dual task against ISIS and the Assad regime.
Last month, Congress approved $500 million for the effort to train about 5,000 troops annually at sites in Saudi Arabia and possibly Turkey for the new Syrian force.
"Recruiting and vetting has not yet begun" for the Syrian force, but a command and control apparatus was forming and sites for training had been selected, Dempsey said.
Both Hagel and Dempsey sought to downplay published reports of friction between them and White House aides on Syria and Iraq. Dempsey contradicted a report that his access to President Obama was limited. He said he had seen the president more than his family in recent days.
"I don't know where that came from - that I don't have access to the President" as his top military advisor, Dempsey said. "I don't have any difficulty" in reaching Obama to give him advice.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached Richard.Sisk@military.com