US president Barack Obama said on Tuesday that ISIL can only be defeated once Bashar Al Assad steps down, but reiterated his willingness to work with Iran and Russia to facilitate a political transition in Syria.
“In Syria…defeating ISIL requires — I believe — a new leader and an inclusive government that unites the Syrian people in the fight against terrorist groups,” Mr Obama said to leaders and officials from the over 60 countries that make up the anti-ISIL coalition.
“We are prepared to work with all countries, including Russia and Iran, to find a political mechanism in which it is possible to begin a transition process,” he added.
Mr Obama’s remarks at a meeting of the global anti-ISIL coalition on the sidelines of the annual UN General Assembly came as Russian president Vladimir Putin has focused his diplomatic efforts to present Mr Al Assad as a key partner for the international community’s fight against the extremist group.
Mr Putin has slammed the US-led strategy as having failed, and senior Russian officials did not attend the meeting chaired by Mr Obama. As the current president of the UN Security Council, Russia will host a rival summit on Wednesday at the council where Mr Putin will call on countries to join his own coalition, which includes Syria and Iran, who were not invited to Tuesday’s meeting.
The question of Mr Al Assad’s fate has been the central issue in the diplomatic tussle continuing at the United Nations.
In recent weeks, Mr Putin has sent unprecedented levels of reinforcements including dozens of fighter jets and around 2,000 military personnel to defend the Assad regime’s heartland and purportedly to help fight ISIL. In his address to the General Assembly on Monday, Mr Putin said it would be an “enormous mistake” for the US and others to not cooperate with the Syrian military.
Mr Obama and other western leaders, including French President Francois Hollande, maintain that Mr Al Assad’s brutal war against rebels is primarily responsible for the overwhelming majority of civilian deaths and for the growth and appeal of ISIL. Mr Obama did not give any details on the US position on any potential role for Mr Al Assad during a potential power transition.
The meeting was held to take stock of the past year’s military fight against ISIL as well as efforts to cut off its financing, stop the flow of foreign fighters to replenish its ranks and counter its powerful online propaganda.
The US-led strategy has been labelled a failure by many observers, and Mr Obama admitted that ISIL is “taking root” in war-torn areas, and that “as a consequence of the “vacuum that exists in many of these areas, ISIL has been able to dig in”, adding that “they have shown themselves to be resilient”.
The US military’s Central Command, which is in charge of the war against the group, has been accused by its own intelligence analysts of altering their negative analyses of the war’s progress. While ISIL has been pushed out of some areas by Iraqi forces, it has expanded in others, and the 7,200 air strikes carried out so far in the air war has failed to dislodge its fighters from urban areas under the group’s control. The training of Iraqi Sunni tribal forces and Iraqi security forces has been slow and fraught with sectarian politics, and the training and equipping of Syrian rebels an unmitigated disaster.
ISIL has also been able to attract over 1,000 new foreign recruits per month, doubling the total number of foreign fighters to over 30,000 in the past year, according to a study by a US Homeland Security committee released Tuesday. “They are very effective through social media and have been able to attract adherents not just from the areas in which they operate, but in many of our own countries,” Mr Obama said.
He offered no clear new measures to address these failures. Instead he called on coalition members in Europe to work towards longer-term goals such as ending discrimination and alienation of Muslim and immigrant communities. He told Arab allies that “the real path to lasting stability and progress is not less democracy; I believe it is more democracy.”
The US and its coalition partners are increasing pressure on ISIL’s financing networks, Mr Obama said. Ahead of the summit, the US treasury and state departments announced new sanctions on 25 “key ISIL facilitators” in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere including those from France and Britain.
He also singled out the UAE’s role in countering ISIL’s propaganda. “The UAE’s new messaging hub — the Sawab Center — is exposing ISIL for what it is, which is a band of terrorists that kills innocent Muslim men, women and children,” Mr Obama said.