Obama Defends Strategy to Fight ISIS with Airstrikes, Commandos

President Obama sits with Vice President Biden and talks with Defense Secretary Ah Carter during a meeting with the National Security Council about the fight against the Islamic State group, Monday, Dec. 14, 2015, at the Pentagon. (Evan Vucci AP Photo)
President Obama sits with Vice President Biden and talks with Defense Secretary Ah Carter during a meeting with the National Security Council about the fight against the Islamic State group, Monday, Dec. 14, 2015, at the Pentagon. (Evan Vucci AP Photo)

President Barack Obama on Monday brushed past calls for a more forceful campaign against the Islamic State while seeking to assure Americans that his current strategy of airstrikes, commando raids, and reliance on local ground troops was succeeding.

The ultimate defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, would be brought about by intensifying the existing strategy and encouraging coalition partners to contribute more to the fight, Obama said in a rare visit to the Pentagon to confer with top commanders and his entire national security team.

"We are hitting ISIL harder than ever," Obama said, using another acronym for ISIS.

He added that "our strategy is moving forward with a great sense of urgency" since the ISIS-inspired terror attacks in San Bernardino, California, on Dec. 2 that killed 14 and injured 22.

Obama arrived at the Pentagon at about 10:45 a.m., went into closed discussions with his national security team and emerged at about 12:35 p.m. in the Pentagon briefing room to give remarks that lasted about eight minutes. He took no questions.

The White House and Obama himself in his weekly radio address had cautioned against expecting major announcements on the anti-ISIS campaign Monday, and he made none.

Instead, the president focused on the achievements of what was already underway. The airstrikes were pummeling ISIS-captured oil facilities and delivery trucks to cut off sources of revenue, he said.

The airstrikes and commando raids were taking out ISIS leaders, while the Iraqi Security Forces, trained and advised by the U.S., were recovering from initial defeats to take back territory, Obama said. Kurdish peshmerga forces in the north were also gaining ground, he said.

In addition, about 50 U.S. Special Forces troops were now on the ground in northeastern Syria and working with local fighters to "tighten the squeeze" on Raqqa, the self-proclaimed ISIS capital, Obama said.

"We recognize that progress needs to keep coming faster" to inflict a lasting defeat on ISIS in Iraq and Syria and stem the spread of ISIS-inspired militants who pose a threat to the U.S. homeland, he said.

"As we squeeze its heart, we'll make it harder for ISIL to pump its terror and propaganda to the rest of the world," Obama said.

"This continues to be a difficult fight," he said. "As I said before, ISIL is dug in, including in urban areas, and they hide behind civilians, using defenseless men, women and children as human shields."

However, "In many places, ISIL has lost its freedom of maneuver, because they know if they mass their forces, we will wipe them out.  In fact, since the summer, ISIL has not had a single successful major offensive operation on the ground in either Syria or Iraq," Obama said.

In response, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from California, said, "The American people are smart enough to know when something is working or not, and it's obvious that the president's current strategy isn't working."

Rep. Martha McSally, a Republican from Arizona and a retired Air Force colonel and member of the House Armed Services Committee, said, "I have been calling on the administration to completely revamp its military strategy and hoped President Obama's visit to the Pentagon today was the start of something new.

"Unfortunately, we heard about the same failed tactics, just used more frequently, with the same detached tone from the president," he said in a statement.

At a Pentagon news conference Friday with visiting British Defense Minister Michael Fallon, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter left open the possibility that Obama might announce the deployment of more troops during his visit to the Pentagon.

"With respect to overall numbers, the president has indicated and shown a willingness to increase that number," Carter said.

But the only new initiatives Obama announced were on the diplomatic front. He said he was dispatching Carter to the Mideast to get more involvement from Arab partners, and also sending Secretary of State John Kerry to Moscow to engage Russian President Vladimir Putin on a political settlement in Syria.

Among those at the Pentagon meeting of more than 30 military and civilians officials with Obama were Carter, Kerry, Vice President Joe Biden, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, FBI Director James Comey, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of U.S. Central Command, and Gen. Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Special Operations Command.

The Pentagon visit began a week of events for Obama in which he was seeking to send the message that the U.S. was living up to its values while pursuing the war against ISIS and preventing attacks on the homeland.

On Tuesday, Obama was going to the National Archives to officiate at a naturalization ceremony to stress that the U.S. welcomed immigrants and was not anti-Islam. At the National Counterterrorism Center on Thursday, Obama planned remarks on threat assessments against the homeland before leaving for his annual two-week holiday vacation in Hawaii.

--Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@military.com.

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