Publicly announcing that US intelligence agencies “underestimated” the presence and activity of Islamic State militants in Syria, US President Barack Obama in an interview with CBS called the country a “ground zero” for international jihadists.
“Over the past couple of years, during the chaos of the Syrian civil war, where essentially you have huge swaths of the country that are completely ungoverned, they were able to reconstitute themselves and take advantage of that chaos,” Obama said in an interview made on Friday but aired on Sunday.
“And so this became ground zero for jihadists around the world,” he added.
Obama echoed comments previously made by James Clapper, US director of national intelligence which acknowledge how IS in Syria had been underestimated.
At the same time, Obama admitted that the Iraqi army’s capabilities in dealing with militant groups were also overestimated. Clapper made similar comments to a Washington Post columnist earlier this month.
“I didn’t see the collapse of the Iraqi security force in the north coming,” Clapper was quoted as saying. “I didn’t see that. It boils down to predicting the will to fight, which is an imponderable.”
IS has killed thousands of people and has staged three very high-profile beheadings of westerners in their ongoing seizure of parts of Syria and north-western Iraq.
Last week, US-led air strikes against IS which began in August in Iraq moved to Syria, and Obama has been attempting to forge a stronger broader coalition against the terrorists, with an international effort with Arab partners and involving the likes of Denmark, France and the UK.
Obama went on to describe his overall military strategy against IS.
“We just have to push them back, and shrink their space, and go after their command and control, and their capacity, and their weapons, and their fueling, and cut off their financing, and work to eliminate the flow of foreign fighters,” he said.
But US military officials admit that air attacks on IS strongholds are not achieving enough and a ground campaign is needed to crush the terrorists – with Kurdish forces in Iraq and the “moderate opposition” trained and equipped by the US in Syria.
“Yes, there has to be a ground component to the campaign against ISIL in Syria,” Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said last week, adding that earlier figures pertaining to a group of 5,000 prospective US-trained forces may be but a fraction of what is truly required to degrade and destroy the Islamic State.