It seemed like the right question to ask, with fighters from the Islamic State terror group making sweeping gains in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province in Iraq — “Are we losing this war?” I asked that and other questions Friday of Principal Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz during the daily White House briefing. His response suggested President Barack Obama doesn’t yet see a need to rethink his strategy, which relies on local forces on the ground aided by American and coalition air power.
Schultz talked of the number of airstrikes, the thousands of fighters killed and enemy pieces of equipment destroyed.
“ISIL's momentum has, indeed, been blunted,” Schultz insisted. “Its ability to mass and maneuver a force is degraded, its leadership cells pressured or eliminated, its command and control and supply lines severed. And despite these successes, the president has made clear that there's going to be ebbs and flows in this fight.”
So Ramadi is an ebb.
I also asked if Iraqis need to do more to reach out to Sunnis and make sure they have what they need to defend themselves — something the president has made a priority.
“In conjunction with Anbari travel forces, the Iraqi security forces have, indeed, been confronting ISIL fighters in Ramadi and around Anbar Province for several months now,” Schultz said.
“Today ISIL is, once again, attempting an offensive in the city of Ramadi, but the coalition is supporting the Iraqi Security Forces and the brave citizens of Anbar Province to help protect the people of Anbar and support their efforts to force ISIL from Ramadi in other cities.”
I also asked if the White House is engaging in a broader re-examination of the president’s strategy of relying on the Iraqis.
“There may be others who are suggesting a re-occupation of the country of Iraq. That's not something the president has said he's been open to,” he said. “But the president has been clear that this is going to be a long-term proposition that there will be ebbs and flows to this fight, but he's committing — he has committed to making sure we're successful.”
Schultz later added, after ABC’s Jon Karl followed up on the momentum comment, that ISIL “no longer has freedom of movement in about 25 percent of the populated areas where it once operated freely” as a result of the coalition’s gains. Obama’s ISIL strategy has come under scathing fire from Republican hawks, particularly Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and most of the Republicans running or contemplating running for president.
Boehner, in particular, has dismissed the idea of passing the White House’s version of an Authorization for the Use of Military Force against the group, saying it would be weaker than existing authority. And the speaker has repeatedly ripped the president for not laying out a strategy that would accomplish the president's goal of destroying the group.
Here's the rush CQ transcript of the exchange:
QUESTION: Could you speak about the gains that ISIS is making in Ramadi et cetera? There's been talk from the podium about progress that's been made against ISIL. This is obviously -- seems like a big setback. What is the White House assessment? Are we losing this war? Do we need to do something differently? And what's the White House doing to try and prevent this critical city from falling? SCHULTZ: Sure. We do continue to work, Steven, with our coalition partners along several lines of effort to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL. As you know more than 60 partners are contributing to this coalition along the key lines of effort, including military support, countering ISIL's finances, countering foreign fighter flows, exposing ISIL's true nature and providing humanitarian support. It's been a while since this has come up in this briefing, so let me just give you our latest rundown of the progress that we have, indeed, been making. The coalition has conducted over 3,900 airstrikes against ISIL terrorists, nearly 2,400 in Iraq and nearly 1,500 in Syria. We've taken out thousands of ISIL's fighters in over 6,000 specific ISIL targets, including numerous commanders. We've taken out thousands of ISIL's fighters, numerous commander, over 1,700 vehicles and tanks, over 170 artillery and mortar positions, nearly 4,000 fighting positions, checkpoints, buildings, bunkers, staging areas and barracks. Airstrikes have also damages over 150 oil and gas facilities. As a result of this effort, ISIL's momentum has, indeed, be blunted. Its ability to mass and maneuver a force is degraded, its leadership cells pressured or eliminated, its command and control and supply lines severed. And despite these successes, the President has made clear that there's going to be ebbs and flows in this fight. That this -- wouldn't -- never be something that was going to be short term in duration, and -- but ultimately will be successful. QUESTION: Well, one of the things that the President has been talking about with his strategy is to get the Iraqi Government to enlist the Sunnis and to provide them what they need to defend themselves. This looks like an example where that failed. This is, you know, the capital of Anbar Province. Is there a failure here by the Iraqi Government to take the steps they need to take? And does the White House need to step up, either its assistance or its pressure on the Iraqis themselves? SCHULTZ: Sure. You asserted a lot of facts and I'm not sure quite, in evidence. I will tell you that, in conjunction with Anbari travel forces, the Iraqi Security Forces have, indeed been confronting ISIL fighters in Ramadi and around Anbar Province for several months now. Today ISIL is, once again, attempting and offensive in the city of Ramadi, but the coalition is supporting the Iraqi Security Forces and the brave citizens of Anbar Province to help protect the people of Anbar and support their efforts to force ISIL from Ramadi in other cities. Coalition forces continue to provide air support in ISIL-held and contested areas throughout Iraq. But I am going to refer you to the Iraqi Government on the latest status of their forces and to the Department of Defense for more on the United States support there. QUESTION: There's no broader re-examining right now in the White House of the broader strategy of we're going to let the Iraqis take the lead, we're going to be mostly doing airstrikes? SCHULTZ: Steven, I -- there may be others who are suggesting a re-occupation of the country of Iraq. That's not something the President has said he's been open to. But the President has been clear that this is going to be a long-term proposition that there will be ebbs and flows to this fight, but he's committing -- he has committed to making sure we're successful.
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