- President says sending more U.S. troops would be mistake
- Clamor for aggressive response rises after Paris attacks
President Barack Obama is doubling down on his strategy to combat Islamic State in the face of rising calls from domestic allies and critics alike for a more aggressive campaign against the extremist group.
In the wake of the deadly Islamic State terrorist attack on Paris, Obama again ruled out on Monday dispatching a major U.S. ground force to Syria and Iraq, saying that would be a “serious mistake” and would push the nation along an unsustainable path of committing to the long-term occupation of countries across the Middle East and North Africa.
Instead, he made a plea for patience to let military, economic and diplomatic pressure work, even as he promised to adjust to conditions.
“There will be an intensification of the strategy that we put forward, but the strategy that we are putting forward is the strategy that ultimately is going to work,” Obama said at a news conference concluding the Group of 20 summit in Turkey, just 300 miles from a main battle zone in Syria. “But as I said from the start, it’s going to take time.”
The president became defensive as he was repeatedly questioned by reporters about whether he had underestimated Islamic State, whether his emphasis on diplomacy emboldened the extremists and whether he truly understands the enemy. His exasperation was evident in his response to the third such question posed.
“All right, so this is another variation on the same question,” he said. “Let me try it one last time.”
Shrinking the territory the terrorists control, getting local forces trained and equipped to keep them out and resolving the civil war in Syria -- “that ultimately is going to be what’s going to make a difference,” he said. “And it’s going to take some time, but it’s not something that at any stage in this process have we not been aware needs to be done.”
Obama’s critics in Congress have said that’s not enough, and their calls for more robust action have grown louder since the attacks in Paris on Friday that killed at least 129 people and wounded more than 300 others.
Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a member of the Armed Services Committee and a Republican presidential candidate, has long been pushing for a no-fly zone in Syria. He now says American troops should join Arab and Turkish forces in ground combat in Syria against Islamic State, also known by the acronyms ISIL and ISIS.
“Let’s use their armies in a smart way and integrate our forces within a regional army” for a ground campaign to supplement airstrikes, Graham said Monday on MSNBC.
Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, usually an administration ally, joined the call for more force beyond the several dozen special operations advisers Obama has said the U.S. was deploying in Syria after the failure of a Defense Department program to train “moderate” rebels.
“I can’t tell you how many troops on the ground we need,” Feinstein said in a separate interview on MSNBC. “But we certainly need more than 50 special ops, and we need the ability to really make a difference on the ground.”
R. Nicholas Burns, who was Undersecretary of State under President George W. Bush, said Obama should step up the air campaign against Islamic State and arms shipments to groups in the region opposed to the terrorists.
“We can and should provide much greater conventional weaponry to the Syrian Kurds, to the Peshmerga and to some of the Arab Sunni,” Burns, who is now a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, said in an interview. “We’ve done so little of that. We’ve been so tentative for four years now.”
Obama lit into his domestic critics, particularly some Republicans running in the 2016 presidential campaign who’ve called for a more robust military campaign against Islamic State.
“Some of them seem to think that if I were just more bellicose in expressing what we’re doing that that would make a difference because that seems to be the only thing that they’re doing, is talking as if they’re tough,” Obama said.
Republican critics have offered few concrete alternatives, he said, with the exceptions of sending in ground forces or establishing no-fly zones, moves that open up a “whole set of questions that have to be answered.”
The president grew visibly irritated with repeated questions during his news conference about whether he should act more decisively or faster to destroy Islamic State. He said he is aware his approach doesn’t offer the satisfaction of a "neat headline" or an immediate solution.
“What I’m not interested in doing is posing or pursuing some notion of ‘American leadership’ or ‘America winning”’ that has “no relationship to what is actually going to work,” he said.
‘Face of Evil’
Obama called Islamic State “the face of evil” and insisted the U.S. and its allies are shrinking its hold in Syria and Iraq even as the group has demonstrated its ability to commit violence beyond the region.
The attacks in Paris last week were “a terrible and sickening setback” in what will be a long campaign against Islamic State, Obama said Monday, shortly after meeting with leaders of European countries at a summit in Turkey.
What won’t work, he said, is sending thousands more U.S. troops into the fight.
“We would see a repetition of what we’ve seen before, which is if you do not have local populations that are committed” to helping combat extremism, Obama said, the terrorists “resurface, unless we are prepared to have a permanent occupation of these countries.”
Obama’s strategy may be under pressure as well from some allies and other players, including Russia, which also is conducting airstrikes in Syria. Like France, Russia has been a target of Islamic State terrorism. A Russian passenger jet was blown out of the sky over Egypt in an attack blamed on the group.
While French President Francois Hollande, like Obama, has ruled out deploying ground troops in Syria in the midst of a civil war, there were signs that last Friday’s terrorist attack is spurring an accommodation with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and has so far resisted U.S. and European demands that he depart eventually as part of a transition.
In a speech to a rare joint session of parliament in Versailles, Hollande said he would call Putin as well as Obama “to unite our efforts and seek a solution.”