The Cable

Obama’s Pentagon Trip Highlights How Little Has Changed in ISIS Fight

It has been five months since the president last visited the Defense Department, but the war against the Islamic State is just as frozen as when he was last there.

ARLINGTON, VA - DECEMBER 14:  (AFP OUT) U.S. President Barack Obama (C) delivers a statement on the counter-ISIL campaign in the Pentagon briefing room December 14, 2015 in Arlington, Virginia. President Obama met previously with a National Security Council on the counter-ISIL campaign. (Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, VA - DECEMBER 14: (AFP OUT) U.S. President Barack Obama (C) delivers a statement on the counter-ISIL campaign in the Pentagon briefing room December 14, 2015 in Arlington, Virginia. President Obama met previously with a National Security Council on the counter-ISIL campaign. (Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)

Since he last stood at the podium in the Pentagon briefing room in July, President Barack Obama has sent special operations forces into combat in Iraq and Syria, ordered hundreds of new airstrikes against the Islamic State, and struggled to figure out whether, or how, to incorporate Vladimir Putin’s Russia into the anti-Islamic State fight.

Obama was back at the Pentagon Monday, but the situation on the ground in Iraq and Syria remains much the same as when the president last crossed the Potomac, and his comments reflected an administration searching for good news to announce.

With no major new successes to tout, Obama was forced to recount many of the same victories he listed in July, when he said U.S. allies had taken Kobani in Syria and the cities of Tikrit and Sinjar in Iraq. In a sign of how tenuous even those types of successes can be, Kurdish Peshmerga forces were forced to launch a second full-scale assault on Sinjar just last month after pockets of Islamic State resistance continued to harass the local population. Kurdish commanders say they’ve finally pushed the final militant holdouts out of the area while cutting a vital highway resupply route between Syria and Mosul.

Still, the Islamic State continues to hold the Iraqi cities of Mosul, Fallujah, and Ramadi, and uses the Syrian city of Raqqa as its administrative capital. Thousands of foreign fighters still stream across the Turkish border, and the fragile U.S.-backed government in Baghdad continues to struggle to unite the country behind the fight.

Likewise, Iraqi troops have been fighting at the edges of the Islamic State-held city of Ramadi for months, unable to push deeply into the city despite having up to 10,000 personnel many trained and supplied by the United States — ringing the city. The Iraqi forces outnumber the defenders 10 to 1, according to some Pentagon estimates.

In his remarks Monday, though, Obama painted a very different picture of the fighting in Iraqi towns and cities. He said, using an acronym for the Islamic State, that “our partners on the ground are rooting ISIL out, town by town, neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block” and “we are hitting ISIL harder than ever” with more than 9,000 airstrikes during the $5.2 billion, 16-month campaign.

“In many places, ISIL has lost its freedom of maneuver because they know if they mass their forces, we will wipe them out. In fact, since this summer, ISIL has not had a single successful major offensive operation on the ground in either Syria or Iraq,” he said.

The president made similar claims during his remarks at the Pentagon in July, boasting of the “thousands of fighting positions, tanks, vehicles, bomb factories, and training camps” that U.S. air power had eliminated and touting Iraqi forces as “an effective partner on the ground.”

The fight has morphed in unexpected ways since the president was last at the Pentagon. In September, Russia sent dozens of fighter planes to Syria to support the regime of Bashar al-Assad, a move that immediately bolstered the strongman’s hold on power. While the White House and U.S. defense officials have been sharply critical of Russia’s role, Moscow’s jets have started to strike more Islamic State sites in and around Raqqa, and the Russians have made sure they will be a key player in any potential political settlement to the nearly five-year civil war in Syria.

Amid all of this, Defense Department leaders have been forced to admit in recent weeks that the Islamic State has continued to expand outside the strongholds it has built in Iraq and Syria, with affiliates now operating in Libya, Afghanistan, and other countries. Alleged Islamic State sympathizers have also been linked to bloody terrorist attacks in both Europe and the United States.

Since Obama’s remarks over the summer, the Islamic State has claimed credit for bombing a Russian passenger jet over the Sinai Peninsula, as well as for the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, which was the deadliest terrorist assault in the United States since 9/11.

Facing heated criticism from Congress and a field of presidential hopefuls accusing him of not doing enough to meet the threat, Obama sought to remind the public Monday that “this fall, even before the revolting attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, I ordered new actions to intensify our war against ISIL. These actions, including more firepower and special operations forces, are well underway.”

Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced last month that as many as 200 special operations forces are headed to Iraq in the coming weeks to engage in direct combat with the militant group in an attempt to pick apart its leadership structure. The deployment will come on top of the 50 commandos recently sent to northern Syria to advise moderate Arab and Kurdish groups there.

While defense officials have refused to confirm if those troops have already arrived in Syria, Obama announced they “have begun supporting local forces” in cutting off supply lines leading to Raqqa.

Obama also said that Carter’s long-planned trip to the Middle East this week to visit U.S. forces deployed there over the holidays will include a series of meetings “to work with our coalition partners on securing more military contributions to this fight.” Carter recently told a congressional committee that Arab allies in the region need to do more in the fight against the Islamic State.

In a sign of how seriously the White House is taking the criticisms over its handling of the Islamic State threat, the president will visit the National Counterterrorism Center in McLean, Virginia, later this week, and Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Moscow Monday to hold talks with Russian officials on forging a political solution to the ongoing civil war in Syria that has claimed more than 250,000 lives.

Photo credit: Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

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