Speaking Monday at a press conference from the G20 summit in Antalya, Turkey, President Obama fielded questions from journalists about his strategy to defeat ISIS amidst the latest terror attacks in Paris, as well as new and continued threats of terrorist violence against both the United States and the rest of Europe. Having declared ISIS “contained” in Iraq and Syria only one day before the Paris attacks occurred, Obama has faced criticism about his counterterrorism strategies, with Republican opponents arguing that the United States needs an increased military presence on the ground. But during the press conference, Obama hit back, outlining his long-term plan to fight terrorism from what he called “the face of evil."
Speaking about the United States’ involvement with France’s increased military effort against Syria, Obama announced that the two countries had formed “a new agreement” for sharing intelligence information between them, which “will allow our personnel to pass threat information, including on ISIL, to our French partners even more quickly and more often”. He discussed working with the coalition to increase airstrikes and work with local forces to help push back ISIS and cut off resources to the terror cells and increase political stability in Syria and end the civil war. But one thing he was definitely not in favor of? Sending troops to Syria to fight ISIS indefinitely:
We have the finest military in the world, we have the finest military minds in the world…[but] that that would be a mistake. If you do not have local populations that are committed to inclusive governance, and who are pushing back against ideological extremes, [then] they resurface, unless we’re prepared to have a permanent occupation of these countries. And let’s assume that we were to send 50,000 troops into Syria, what happens when there’s a terrorist attack generated from Yemen? Do we then send more troops into there, or Libya perhaps?
Obama emphasized that, despite the criticism, he still felt confident that his long-term, diplomatic approach would be the most effective after all, and that it would be, most importantly, sustainable:
The strategy that we’re pursuing, which focuses on going after targets, limiting wherever possible the capabilities of ISIL on the ground, systematically going after their leadership, their infrastructure, strengthening [local] forces that are prepared to fight them, cutting off their borders, and squeezing the space in which they can operate until ultimately we’re able to defeat them, that’s the strategy we’re going to have to pursue.
But while most of the press conference focused on the President’s military approach to fighting ISIS, that wasn’t all he wanted to talk about.
Syrian Refugees Are Victims Of Terrorism, Too
In the wake of such a brutal terror attack against innocent people in Paris, it’s easy to forget that there are innocent people who need protection in Syria too. Speaking about Syrian refugees, he said:
The people who are fleeing Syria are the most harmed by terrorism. They are the most vulnerable as a consequence of civil war and strife. They are parents. They are children. They are orphans. And it is very important — I was glad to see that this was affirmed again and again by the G-20 — that we do not close our hearts to these victims of such violence, and somehow start equating the issue of refugees with the issue of terrorism.
Let’s Not Forget About Humanitarian Aid
Although the terror attacks in Paris have just further ignited the debate about refugees and border controls, Obama was clear in his belief that we should be doing more to help what he called “the agony of the Syrian people”. He announced that aid would be increased to Syria as winter approaches, and called on other countries to up their humanitarian aid. But he also emphasized the need for accepting Syrian refugees, albeit with stricter screening processes:
In terms of refugees, it’s clear that countries like Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, which are already bearing an extraordinary burden, cannot be expected to do so alone. At the same time, all of our countries have to ensure our security, and as president, my first priority is the safety of the American people. And that’s why, even as we accept more refugees, including Syrians, we do so only after subjecting them to rigorous screening and security checks. We also have to remember that many of these refugees are the victims of terrorism themselves — that’s what they’re fleeing. Slamming the door in their faces would be a betrayal of our values. Our nations can welcome refugees who are desperately seeking safety, and ensure our own security. We can, and must, do both.
The Fight Against Terror Is A Different Kind Of Fight
Obama was clear to denounce ISIS as little more than “killers with fantasies of glory”, and whose attacks should be treated differently than those of an actual country — particularly because ISIS recruits not just from Syria and Iraq, but from around the world, include Europe and the United States:
[O]ne of the challenges we have in this situation is that if you have a handful of people who don’t mind dying, they can kill a lot of people. That’s one of the challenges of terrorism. It’s not their sophistication, or the particular weaponry that they possess, it is the ideology that they carry with them and their willingness to die...So when I said that we are containing the spread in Iraq and Syria, in fact they control less territory than they did last year. And the more we shrink that territory, the less they can pretend that they are somehow a functioning state, and the more it becomes apparent that they are simply a network of killers who are brutalizing local populations.
Islam Is Not The Enemy, Violent Extremism Is
Discrimination against people of the Muslim faith is always a concern given ISIS’s claim that they are fighting on behalf of their religion. After some suggestions from government leaders surfaced that asylum should be given to refugees based on their faith (that is, not allowing Muslims to enter the country), Obama called for compassion (and even gave a hat tip to George W. Bush):
When I hear folks say that, well, maybe we should just admit the Christians but not the Muslims — when I hear political leaders suggesting that there would be a religious test for which person is fleeing from a war-torn country is admitted — when some of those folks themselves come from families who benefited from protection when they were fleeing political persecution, that’s shameful. That’s not American. That’s not who we are.
I had a lot of disagreements with George W. Bush on policy, but I was very proud after 9/11 when he was adamant and clear about the fact that this is not a war on Islam...It was the right impulse. It’s our better impulse. And whether we are European or American, the values that we are defending, the values that we’re fighting against ISIS for, are precisely that we don’t discriminate against people because of their faith. We don’t kill people because they’re different than us. That’s what separates us from them. And we don’t feed that kind of notion that somehow Christians and Muslims are at war.
For now, time will tell whether or not President Obama's words this morning were enough to quiet the criticism that his administration lacks decisive military strategy. But if it wasn't crystal-clear before, it certainly is now: The state of the conflict abroad is proving to be even more complex than we ever could have imagined.
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