During a rare visit to the Pentagon, President Barack Obama detailed point-by-point how U.S.-led forces have stopped the Islamic State’s ground gains in Iraq and Syria, taken back swaths of territory, killed a string of key terrorist leaders, and now are fighting or putting “the squeeze” on major ISIS-held cities. But there is more fighting to come, the commander in chief said Monday, reading an 8-minute statement after spending about two hours with an extended group of his war cabinet.
“This fall, even before the revolting attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, I ordered new actions to intensify our war against ISIL,” Obama said. “These actions, including more firepower and special operations forces, are well underway…The Special Forces that I ordered to Syria have begun supporting the local forces; they pushed south, cut off supply lines, and tightened the squeeze on Raqqa.”
The U.S. dropped more bombs in November than any previous month of the campaign, destroying everything from vehicles and training camps to oil refineries. And the president described a combination of precision strikes from the air and special operators on the ground that continue to hunt and kill ISIS leaders at a faster rate.
Obama’s recap offered little new information to close observers of the war effort, but hoped to create a visual turning point: Obama at the seat of the American military, pushing back on critics and reassuring U.S. troops and the public about his administration’s vigorous efforts to counter ISIS.
“We’re also taking out ISIL leaders, commanders and killers one by one,” he said, listing several key players. ”Since this spring, we’ve removed Abu Sayyaf, one of their top leaders; Haji Mutaz, ISIL’s second in command; Junaid Hussain, a top online recruiter; Mohammed Emwazi, who brutally murdered Americans and others; and in recent weeks, finance chief Abu Saleh; senior extortionist Abu Maryam; and weapons trafficker Abu Rahman al-Tunisi. The list goes on. We’re going after ISIL from their stronghold right down — right in downtown Raqqah, to Libya, where we took out Abu Nabil, the ISIL leader there. The point is, ISIL leaders cannot hide and our next message to them is simple: You are next.”
Still, Obama stressed how small numbers of U.S. troops were helping local forces gain ground, and gave no indication of any increase to that force.
“Our partners on the ground face a very tough fight ahead,” Obama said. “We are going to continue to back them up with the support that they need to ultimately clear ISIL from Iraq.”
“So far ISIL has lost about 40 percent of the populated areas it once controlled in Iraq and it will lose more,” Obama also said. “The Iraqi forces are now fighting their way deeper into Ramadi, they are working to encircle Fallujah and cut off ISIL’s supply routes into Mosul.”
The president said that Defense Secretary Ash Carter will depart for the Middle East to help secure additional support from local governments. He did not say whether that message would include requests for more ground troops. Carter’s trip is a pre-planned holiday visit to deployed troops. Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to discuss the campaign with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Tuesday.
As he spoke, Obama was flanked by Carter, Vice President Joe Biden, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, and Vice Chairman Gen. Paul Selva, as well as Central Command’s outgoing commander, Gen. Lloyd Austin, and his expected successor, Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command.
Obama’s visit to the U.S. military’s headquarters comes after more than a month of terrorist attacks linked or inspired by ISIS outside of Iraq and Syria, including the downing of the Russian airliner over Egypt, bombings in Beirut, the Paris attack of November, and the San Bernardino, California, workplace shooting by a husband-and-wife team U.S. authorities say had terrorist tendencies that predated the rise of ISIS.
Indeed, policy and security attentions have shifted to Europe and America, putting greater scrutiny on the Obama administration and European governments’ plans for immigration, visa processes, the Syrian refugee flow, and now even gun control, gun violence and mass shootings in America. In that time, the conversation has quieted around what for nearly two years has been the chief request of Obama’s critics: send ten of thousands additional U.S. ground troops into Iraq and Syria.
But air strikes and new special operations fights are ongoing, Obama said, and larger ground battles to retake Iraqi and Syrian cities are underway or on the horizon.
“This continues to be a difficult fight. 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. So even as we’re relentless, we have to be smart, targeting ISIL surgically with precision,” Obama said. “At the same time, our partners on the ground are rooting ISIL out town by town, neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block. That is what this campaign is doing. We are hitting ISIL harder than ever.”