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February 8, 2016

Obama Official on Defeating ISIS: Get More International, Fix Syria

[UPDATED 3:02 p.m. Sept. 4]

A day after a video surfaced showing the beheading of a second American journalist held captive by the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL), the director of the National Counterterrorism Center suggested that a key to defeating the group was assembling an international coalition and looking toward a political transition in Syria as a long-term strategy.

The group is “not invincible,” Matthew Olsen said, speaking at the Brookings Institution Wednesday. “With broad coalition of international partners, we have the tools to defeat ISIL.”

Over 120 airstrikes have been conducted in Iraq against ISIS, which has over 10,000 fighters, according to Olsen. Around 100 of them hold American passports, but it is not clear how many of the 100 are actually part of ISIS. However, Olsen believes that most of them are part of some extremist group.

In terms of long-term goals, the role of Syria will be important, and any political transition won’t happen overnight.

“It’s going to take time; part of that will mean working to secure a political transition in Syria. As long as Assad is in that position, a rule with no legitimacy in his country, we have seen Syria is a magnet for extremism and extremists flow to that country, which obviously complicates the security picture from our perspective but provides resources and support for ISIL, Al-Nusra and other groups,” Olsen said. “So, you know, part of the broader strategy over the long term is a political transition in Syria.”

The political transition in Syria might not be as easily achieved, according to Christopher Swift, who has done field research on national security issues in conflict zones and is an adjunct professor of National Security Studies at Georgetown University.

“The Obama administration’s near-term approach to ISIS must address both the three-side political dis-function in Iraq and the three-sided civil war in Syria,” Swift said. “The two are separate issues, to be sure, but the chaos they engender empowers the same adversary. This means need a strategy that operates in different ways based on the different local conditions on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border.”

Olsen stressed that ISIL is an “extremely dangerous organization operating in a chaotic part of the world,” which is exploiting the conflict in Syria and the sectarian tensions in Iraq.

“ISIL poses a direct and significant threat” to Americans, to Iraqi civilians and potentially to the United States, Olsen said.

Swift said he believes the role of  the United States and its coalition partners is crucial in the fight against the Islamic State. “Bottom line: if we don’t define the mission then the mission will define us,” he said.

Also Wednesday, President Obama spoke at a news conference on his trip to Estonia. He said it’s going to take time to take on ISIS, and build a regional coalition.

“It’s not only that we’re going to be bringing to justice those who perpetrated this terrible crime against these two fine young men,” he said. “More broadly, the United States will continue to lead a regional and international effort against the kind of barbaric and ultimately empty vision that ISIL represents. And that’s going to take some time, but we’re going to get it done. I’m very confident of it.”

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