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Obama to Visit Pentagon to Refine Islamic State Strategy

by Carla Babb, Carol Guensburg July 06, 2015

U.S. President Barack Obama makes a rare visit to the Pentagon Monday to confer with national security advisers about refining their strategy to defeat Islamic State militants wreaking havoc in Iraq and Syria.

Obama, who has conceded the U.S. lacks a "complete strategy," is scheduled to meet with Defense Secretary Ash Carter at 2:20 p.m.

The meeting comes after a weekend of intensified airstrikes by a U.S.-led coalition against the militants, who have taken control of large swaths of northern and western Iraq and eastern Syria. The coalition conducted 38 strikes, with nearly half directed around the self-proclaimed IS capital of Raqqa.

In a press briefing at the Pentagon with French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, Secretary Carter said the coalition strikes around Raqqa aimed to limit the freedom of movement of the Islamic State and were made possible thanks to the effective actions of Kurdish forces there.

With no U.S. forces on the ground in Syria, Carter said these local forces must nominate air strike targets, and only after these targets have been validated and assessed for the potential civilian casualties do U.S. forces carry out strikes against these targets.

'Terrorist army'

In the briefing, the French defense minister called the Islamic State a 'terrorist army' rather than a 'terrorist group.' Le Drian vowed French forces would continue to work with the coalition to 'block' Islamic State from taking over Iraq. France does not participate in air strikes in Syria but has used its Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier to launch airstrikes into Iraq for months.

Coalition strikes began in Iraq last August and in Syria a month later. Warplanes have conducted at least 4,800 combined airstrikes, according to Pentagon data, in missions that officials say have helped Iraqi troops and fighters in Syria reclaim some territory from the militants.

'We believe that we have an impact on [Islamic State],' Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren recently told reporters in Washington. Despite the loss of a quarter of the land the group seized in Syria and Iraq, however, "they remain a potent force,' he added.

Limited progress

But progress has been limited, with the Iraqi military still unable to achieve widespread success on the ground in reclaiming major northern and western cities. They have been aided by Iranian-backed militias and Kurdish fighters in operations such as the ongoing effort to take back Anbar province.

So far, Obama has resisted calls to send U.S. ground troops back to Iraq, instead deploying advisers and trainers to try to boost the Iraqi troops.

The United States also has struggled to find moderate Syrian rebels to train. The Associated Press reports it has trained fewer than 100 rebels to date, a fraction of the 5,400 intended fighters.

Secretary Carter has said the small number is due to a difficult vetting process partnered with the requirement that those trained must be willing, at least initially, to solely fight Islamic State forces rather than the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. U.S. General Martin Dempsey, Chairmain of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said the U.S. won't take any shortcuts on vetting because of the risk that would pose not only to coalition forces, but also to the objectives the coalition is trying to achieve.

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