President Barack Obama has said that the United States contained the self-declared Islamic State in Iraq and Syria but now allies in the region must do more to defeat it.
In an interview with ABC News’ This Week that was broadcast on Sunday, the president disputed that the radical Islamist organization had gained ground.
“From the start our goal has been first to contain,” he said, “and we have contained them. They have not gained ground in Iraq. And in Syria, they’ll come in, they’ll leave.”
But the group has claimed responsibility for a string of terrorist attacks this year, most recently in Lebanon and France.
Shootings and suicide bombings throughout Paris killed close to 130 people on Friday.
The interview with ABC was conducted before the Paris attacks.
On Friday, Obama said, “We’re going to do whatever it takes to work with the French people and with nations around the world to bring these terrorists to justice and to go after any terrorist networks that go after our people.”
Recent Islamic State-linked attacks in Europe, Kuwait and Tunisia were carried out by sympathizers or “lone wolf” terrorists. The extent to which they communicated with the caliphate’s leaders in Iraq and Syria is unknown.
Obama admitted in the interview with ABC that the Western allies had yet to “completely decapitate their command and control structures.”
“We’ve made some progress in trying to reduce the flow of foreign fighters,” he added. But he said Turkey could do more to secure its frontier with Syria.
Hundreds of European jihadists reached the Islamic State through that country before it stepped up border controls this year.
The American leader also recognized that sectarian divisions complicate the fight.
In Iraq, Iranian-backed Shiite militias and non-Arab Kurds have so far been the more effective fighting forces against the Islamic State.
“Part of our goal has to be to recruit more effective Sunni partners in Iraq to really go on offense rather than simply engage in defense,” said Obama.
As for Syria, he emphasized that as long as dictator Bashar al-Assad — who is supported by Iran as well as Russia — stays in power, the Islamic State will be able to draw on mostly Sunni discontent.
Until Assad is no longer a lightning rod for Sunnis in Syria and that entire region is no longer a proxy war for Shia-Sunni conflict, we’re going to continue to have problems.
There is even evidence, as the Atlantic Sentinel has reported, that Assad’s regime helped create what is now the Islamic State.
Assad’s loyalists, including Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon, have seldom engaged Islamic State militants on the battlefield. Rather, they have concentrated their firepower on less fanatical opposition forces in the north, around Aleppo, and in the vicinity of Damascus, the capital.
Regime defectors have said that Assad locked up protesters who were involved in peaceful demonstrations while fanatics and violent offenders were let out of jail.
The purpose was to downplay the revolutionary narrative of the “Arab Spring” and portray the opposition movement as an Islamist insurgency determined to topple a secular government instead — and make the world think twice before removing Assad from power.
The United States and allies, including France, regularly carry out airstrikes against Islamic State targets from bases in Jordan and Turkey as well as aircraft carriers in the region. Recently, Obama also deployed special forces to take part in operations against the group.