Obama: US Must Try to Partner with Russia to Defeat Islamic State

President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Ash Carter thank service members after an Aug. 4 news conference at the Pentagon. (DoD photo/Brigitte Brantley)
President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Ash Carter thank service members after an Aug. 4 news conference at the Pentagon. (DoD photo/Brigitte Brantley)

The United States must try to broker a deal with Russia to coordinate military operations in Syria and drive the Islamic State group out of that country, President Barack Obama said Thursday at the Pentagon.

Obama was there to meet with his national security advisers to discuss ongoing strategies in the campaign against the Islamic State group. At a news conference that followed, he said no tactic used by the terrorists will stop the United States from fighting them on every front across the globe.

"We'll keep working with allies and partners to go after [the Islamic State group] wherever it tries to spread," the president said.

One partner could be Russia.

For the last month, the United States and Russia have been negotiating terms that would have their militaries join forces in Syria against the Nusra Front, a formerly al-Qaida-affiliated group targeted by Russian and Syrian government warplanes.

Under the agreement, the United States would join the fight against the Nusra Front and Russia would adhere to the May 2016 Aleppo ceasefire they have often violated.

Obama said Thursday that the escalation of hostilities in and around Aleppo make the negotiations with Russia more difficult, but still necessary.

"I'm not confident we can trust the Russians and Vladimir Putin," the president told reporters. "Which is why we have to test whether we can get an actual cessation of hostilities .... we go into this without any blinders on."

In the fight against the Islamic State, U.S.-backed Iraqi and Syrian forces have recaptured significant portions of their countries from the terrorist group, attempting to isolate them in their strongholds of Mosul and Raqqa. But at the same time, the Islamic State and militants affiliated with the terrorist group have executed multiple high-profile attacks in western Europe and the United States.

"In terms of the threat that [the Islamic State group] poses to the homeland, I think it is serious," Obama said. "The possibility of either a lone actor or a small cell carrying out an attack that kills people is real."

In response, Obama said his administration has ramped up U.S. efforts, including sensitive negotiations with Russia to potentially coordinate a strategy to speed the defeat of the Islamic State group in Syria.

But the United States has had no formal military relations with Russia since its takeover of Crimea in 2014. Obama said Thursday that negotiations are critical in achieving a political solution in Syria, and speed the demise of the Islamic State group there.

"We have to try," he said. "The alternative is the perpetuation of civil war."

The United Nations estimates 300,000 civilians are still trapped in Aleppo and are in dire need of safe passage out of the city. The population last received humanitarian relief in June, according to the United Nations.

But an agreement with Russia exposes the United States to risks, said Jeff Mankoff, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

"The operational risk is that any agreement is not going to be observed by all sides and the balance of forces on the ground is going to shift against the people we were supporting," Markoff said.

Nusra Front is the only opposition group to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime. The United States agreeing to attack the group would benefit Russia and the Syrian government, but potentially could weaken the moderate rebels in the country that it has supported in the fight against the Islamic State group, Markoff said.

However, Obama said Thursday that the options are limited when you have a civil war such as the one in Syria.

"When you have a ruler who doesn't care about his people. When you've got terrorist organizations that are brutal and would impose their own kind of dictatorship on people. And, you have a moderate opposition and ordinary civilians who are often out-gunned and outmanned," the president said. "That's a very difficult situation to deal with, but we have got to give it a chance."

Thursday's meeting of Obama's national security advisers follows a string of policy decisions by the White House to expand U.S. military involvement against the Islamic State group. Since operations were first launched in 2014, the United States and its coalition partners have conducted 14,000 airstrikes against the terrorist group, Obama said.

His appearance at the Pentagon comes just a week after he approved a new front in Libya in the air war against Islamic State group. Since Monday, U.S. manned and unmanned warplanes have launched three airstrikes against Islamic State targets in the coastal city of Sirte, under the banner of Operation Odyssey Lighting.

The strikes in Libya come as Obama also recently approved expanded airstrikes to counter the threat of the Islamic State group in Afghanistan, and inserted U.S. forces closer to the front lines in Iraq and Syria.

"Nothing will do more to discredit [the Islamic State group]...than when it loses its base in Raqqa and in Mosul," Obama said. "And we're going to keep working with partners...to expose [the Islamic State group] for what they are: murderers who kill innocent people."

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