Wars

Obama touts air campaign against ISIS amid continued turmoil in Middle East

Former CIA director Amb. James Woolsey evaluates president's statement on air campaign

 

President Obama touted the U.S.-led coalition’s air campaign against ISIS Wednesday, even as political turmoil in Iraq and flares of violence in Syria threaten to jeopardize hard-fought gains.

Speaking at CIA headquarters in Virginia, Obama said it had been a “few bad months” for ISIS and gave a detailed account of areas where U.S.-backed forced have regained territory from the militant group.

Though he acknowledged the fight remains difficult and complex, he said ISIS was on the defensive and that the U.S. intends to "keep that momentum."

"Every day, ISIL leaders wake up and understand that it could be their last," Obama said, using an alternate acronym for the extremist group.

Obama didn’t detail any new steps about how the U.S. will beef up the fight against ISIS, although U.S. officials have suggested those steps are in the works. Defense Chief Ash Carter has said the Pentagon is looking at new ways to increase military support for the fight, including a likely increase in U.S. forces and the possible use of Apache helicopters for Iraqi-led combat missions.

"They are working around the clock to keep us safe," Obama said, adding that CIA operatives had thwarted terrorists repeatedly without being able to acknowledge it publicly. "They don't get a lot of attention."

The fragile cease-fire that the U.S. and Russia brokered in February has seen violations as both government forces and moderate Syrian rebels have threatened to break it. Peace talks resumed Wednesday in Geneva aimed at resolving Syria's civil war, though deep disagreements about who should participate have continued to plague that process.

The uptick in violence in Syria has raised difficult questions about how to proceed if the truce falls apart and frees President Bashar Assad and his Russian backers to resume attacks on U.S.-supported opposition groups.

Russia, which had been bolstering Assad with an air campaign against his opponents, recently ordered a drawdown in warplanes, but said strikes would continue against IS and the Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front. Both of those groups are excluded from the cease-fire.

The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday the U.S. is considering providing weapons systems to the moderate rebels, in case the cease-fire fails. However, the CIA made it clear that the backup plan would only be put in place if the truce collapses.

In Iraq, Obama pointed to the Iraqi military's preparations to retake the ISIS stronghold of Mosul as an example of increased momentum in the fight. Yet modest signs of progress have been tempered by ongoing sectarian challenges and a political crisis in Baghdad that have threatened to further destabilize the country.

Obama's remarks at the CIA came the week before he travels to Saudi Arabia for a summit with Persian Gulf leaders focused largely on the threat from the Islamic State. Previewing his request to countries attending that summit, Obama said "the entire world" must step up to help Iraq restore stability "so that ISIL cannot return."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.