WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama said U.S. intelligence officials failed to appreciate the gains made by Islamic State extremists in Syria during the last few years of that country’s civil war.
“I think they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria,” Obama said in a taped interview that will air in full Sunday night on CBS’s “60 Minutes” program.
“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,” the president said, Islamic State was “able to reconstitute themselves and take advantage of that chaos.” Obama spoke in an excerpt aired Sunday on the TV network’s “Face the Nation” program.
“This became ground zero for jihadists around the world,” Obama said of Syria, where Islamic State now controls territory in the east, centered on the city of Raqqa.
Obama also said the U.S. overestimated the ability and will of the Iraqi army to fight the radical Sunni group, which also controls part of northern Iraq.
“Where you’ve got states that are failing or in the midst of civil war, these kinds of organizations thrive,” he said.
The interview was Obama’s first since the U.S. expanded its war against Islamic State extremists in Iraq by conducting airstrikes in Syria with the help of five Arab nations. The newly formed coalition is the biggest U.S.-Arab military venture since the 1991 war to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation.
In the latest strikes, conducted Saturday and Sunday, aircraft from the U.S., Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates destroyed a tank, armed vehicles, a Humvee, and struck a command-and-control center and four modular oil refineries in Syria all owned or controlled by Islamic State forces, according to a statement issued Sunday by U.S. Central Command.
As part of the opening air attack in Syria last week, the U.S. also struck targets purported to be aligned with the Khorasan Group, an al-Qaida affiliate that U.S. officials described as plotting terrorist attacks in the U.S. or Europe.
“I think we’ve had a very good start,” Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken said Sunday on CBS, when asked about the military offensive against Islamic State.
“We wanted to get an inclusive Iraqi government in place so we’d have a partner to work with in Iraq,” Blinken said. “We wanted to get support to train and equip the Syrian opposition. And we had a broad bipartisan vote in support of that in Congress.”
Even so, lawmakers on Sunday’s television talk shows raised concerns about the operation, including whether U.S. ground troops ultimately will be required and whether Obama should ask Congress to authorize the use of force, particularly in Syria.
The Obama administration has ruled out U.S. ground forces, saying it can rely on Iraqi and Kurdish troops to fight Islamic State militants in Iraq, while training and arming moderate Syrian rebels to do the same in Syria.
“I don’t see the political strategy, at least a realistic one, in Syria,” said Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, a Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee. “And then that begs the question, how long are we going to be there and is there any end? There’s just no appetite in the American public for an open-ended military conflict in Syria,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union” program.
House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said the U.S. will have “no choice” but to put American troops on the ground if those other nations fail to do so.
“These are barbarians,” Boehner said of Islamic State forces, in an interview for ABC’s “This Week” program. “They intend to kill us, and if we don’t destroy them first, we’re going to pay the price.”
Boehner also said he would be willing to call Congress back into session to vote to authorize the use of military force in Iraq and Syria, if Obama asked him for such a resolution.
“I think he does have the authority to do it, but the point I’ve been making is that this is a proposal that the Congress ought to consider,” Boehner said.
Blinken gave no indication that Obama will seek a new resolution from Congress to authorize the military operation.
“That’s something we’d welcome,” Blinken said. “We do not require it. We have the existing authorization from 2001. That is a basis for proceeding.”
He also sidestepped questions about whether the U.S. should create a no-fly zone in Syria that would prevent President Bashar Assad from using his air force to strike moderate rebels whom the U.S. is aiding.
“Other ideas that may come into play down the line, we’re looking at all of that,” Blinken said. “Right now, we’re setting ISIL back,” he said, using an acronym for Islamic State.
The interview with Obama was conducted Friday upon his return to the White House from the United Nations General Assembly, where he pressed for more nations to fight Islamic State, won a Security Council resolution calling for a crackdown on the flow of foreign fighters, and laid out a strategy to counter Muslim extremists with force.
In his Sept. 24 speech to the General Assembly, Obama said that while the world has made great strides since the founding of the U.N. after World War II, the brutal ideology of terrorist groups such as Islamic State must be eliminated.
Obama later led the U.N. Security Council in its 15-0 vote for a resolution aimed at information-sharing and cracking down on the recruiting, equipping and financing of foreign fighters who go into conflict zones and then back to their home countries.
U.S. intelligence agencies estimate that more than 15,000 individuals from more than 80 countries have traveled to Syria in recent years to join its civil war. Many joined groups such as the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaida offshoot, and Islamic State, the president said.
Some foreign fighters who hold passports from the U.S. or European countries may return home to launch terrorist attacks, U.S. officials have said.