WASHINGTON — Pentagon leaders stepped before reporters today for the first time since the beheading of journalist James Foley, with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warning that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) is “beyond anything that we’ve seen.”
“ISIL is as sophisticated and well-funded as any group that we have seen. They’re beyond just a terrorist group. They marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess. They are tremendously well-funded,” Hagel said at the briefing alongside Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey. “…So we must prepare for everything. And the only way you do that is that you take a cold, steely, hard look at it and– and — and get ready.”
One thing that was lacking, as with President Obama’s Wednesday statement on the murder of Foley, was a hard game plan to move forward and defeat the terrorist organization.
“We continue to explore all options regarding ISIL and how best we can assist our partners in that area, the Middle East, and particularly in Iraq, against ISIL,” Hagel said. “…We will continue to stay focused, as I said, on what we’re doing now and exploring all options as we go forward.”
Hagel stressed that U.S. assistance, such as airstrikes in the Iraqi operation to retake Mosul dam and helping Kurds defend Irbil, “have stalled ISIL’s momentum and enabled Iraqi and Kurdish forces to regain their footing and take the initiative.”
Not long before the Pentagon briefing began, though, new reports emerged of ISIS offensives. Al Iraqiya reported that ISIS forces had launched an attack on Amerli, a Turkmen town that has been under siege and crying for help since June 18 — heroically holding off the terrorists until today.
Kurdish accounts on Twitter were also reporting a large convoy of ISIS fighters moving toward Mount Sinjar, now that international attention was turned away from the site of the Yazidi siege.
“The president, the chairman and I are all very clear-eyed about the challenges ahead. We are pursuing a long-term strategy against ISIL because ISIL clearly poses a long-term threat. We should expect ISIL to regroup and stage new offenses,” Hagel said, not mentioning any of the terror group’s latest moves.
Hagel returned a couple of times to the pre-Foley Obama administration mantra: that an inclusive government in Baghdad and ensuing political reconciliation would help stop ISIS.
“It’s bigger than just a military operation and our efforts, as we executed the president’s strategy on this, are specifically targeted, just as the president has said for the reasons he said,” he said of the limited airstrikes to address such a widespread threat. “…We are doing everything we can within the confines of our influence to assist and recognize, as we’ve said, to deal with ISIL there in the Middle East and also recognizing that it is a threat, just as we’ve all said.”
Dempsey said they think ISIS “can be contained, not in perpetuity.”
“This is an organization that has an apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision and which will eventually have to be defeated. To your question, can they be defeated without addressing that part of their organization which resides in Syria? The answer is no. That will have to be addressed on both sides of what is essentially at this point a nonexistent border,” Dempsey continued.
“And that will come when we have a coalition in the region that takes on the task of defeating ISIS over time. ISIS will only truly be defeated when it’s rejected by the 20 million disenfranchised Sunni that happen to reside between Damascus and Baghdad.”
That, the chairman said, “requires a variety of instruments, only one small part of which is airstrikes.”
Today is the one-year anniversary of the sarin attack on the suburb of Ghouta in which President Bashar Assad killed more than 1,400 people — and the one-year anniversary of the crossing of President Obama’s “red line” on Syria. Strikes in Syria would force the administration to decide if it still thought Assad should go, as Obama previously declared. Complicating the White House’s determination if it should use Assad or not is mounting suspicion that the Syrian president — widely thought to have originally held Foley in custody — was handing American prisoners over ISIS, which enjoys safe haven and oil sales to the regime in return for helping keep Assad in power.
“Assad is very much a central part of the problem. And I think it’s well documented as to why. When you have the brutal dictatorship of Assad and what he has done to his own country, which perpetuated much of what is happening or has been happening in Syria, so he’s part of the problem, and as much a part of it as probably the central core of it,” Hagel said.
“He is absolutely part of the problem,” Dempsey added.
Hagel was asked if the U.S. was headed for another “long, hard slog” — in the words of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld — in fighting ISIS.
“When we look at what they did to Mr. Foley, what they threatened to do to all Americans and Europeans, what they are doing now, the — I don’t know any other way to describe it other than barbaric. They have no standard of decency, of responsible human behavior, and I think the record’s clear on that. So, yes, they are an imminent threat to every interest we have, whether it’s in Iraq or anywhere else,” Hagel said.
“The conflict against those groups, most of which are local, some of which are regional, and some of which are global in nature, that’s going to be a very long contest. It’s ideological. It’s not political. It’s religious, in many cases. So, yes, it’s going to be a very long contest,” Dempsey added.
“…The immediacy is in the number of Europeans and other nationalities who have come to the region to become part of that ideology,” Dempsey said of the threat to the West. “And those folks can go home at some point.”