The Islamic State is going to be a “serious threat for some time to come,” President Obama said Tuesday, as he pointed out the difficulty of getting Russia to join the global coalition against the group.
“It’s not going to be easy,” Obama said of the fight against the Islamic State, which controls a swath of territory across Syria and Iraq.
“ISIL is going to continue to be a deadly organization because of its social media, the resources that it has, and the networks of experiences fighters that it possesses,” he said, using another name for the group. “And it’s going to continue to be a serious threat for some time to come. But I’m confident that we’re on the winning side of this.”
The president’s remarks were made at a news conference in Paris where he attended the global climate talks. Although climate change is the focus of the summit, Obama and other world leaders also have their attention fixed on the Islamic State and the Syrian civil war—especially in the light of the November 13 attack on Paris that killed 130 people, for which the Islamic State claimed responsibility.
That conflict pits President Bashar al-Assad, who is backed by Russia and Iran, against several rebel groups, some backed by the West, who range in affiliation from left wing, to moderate, to Islamist. Diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict are stuck over Assad’s future. Western nations and their allies, including Turkey, want Assad gone before a political settlement is reached. Russia opposes that.
Add to this mix the Islamic State, which Obama had once dismissed a “JV team,” but which has seen stunning successes over the past few years. Both the West and its allies, as well as Russia, are bombing the Islamic State, but Russia is also bombing other rebel groups opposed to Assad. It was one such operation, against a Turkmen group, during which Turkey shot down a Russian warplane on November 24. That action resulted in heated rhetoric between the two countries, accusations and counteraccusations, and a diminishing prospect of Russia joining the global coalition—something French President Francois Hollande had hoped for after the Paris attack.
Earlier Tuesday, Obama urged Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to work with Russia to lower tensions.
“We all have a common enemy, and that is ISIL,” he said.
But at his news conference, Obama, who met with Putin on Monday, said it was unlikely Russia would change its policy anytime soon.
“I don’t expect that you’re going to see a 180 turn on their strategy over the next several weeks,” he said. “They have invested, for years now, in keeping Assad in power. Their presence there is predicated on propping him up. So that’s going to take some time for them to change how they think about the issue.”
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Still, Obama pointed out Russia is unlikely to want a prolonged military role in Syria, given what happened the last time Russian forces took part in an operation outside Europe.
“With Afghanistan fresh in the memory, for him [Putin] to simply get bogged down in an inconclusive and paralyzing civil conflict is not the outcome that he’s looking for,” Obama said.
The president also appeared optimistic about the prospects of diplomacy in Syria—dubbed the Vienna process—that is being headed by John Kerry, the American secretary of state, and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov.
“What can happen is if the political process … if that works in Vienna, then it’s possible, given the existing accord the parties have already agreed to, we see at least pockets of cease-fires in and around Syria,” Obama said. “That may mean then that certain opposition groups no longer find themselves subject to either Syrian or Russian bombing. They are then in a conversation about politics. And slowly, we are then able to get everybody’s attention diverted to where it needs to be that—and that is going after ISIL in a systematic way.”
As part of those “systematic” efforts, Germany’s Cabinet has approved sending 1,200 troops, a naval frigate, and reconnaissance flights to fight against the Islamic State. The move needs parliamentary approval, which is expected Wednesday. Britain’s Cabinet also approved its own efforts against the group . A parliamentary debate is scheduled for Wednesday.