President Barack Obama pledged to keep pounding Islamic State militants with airstrikes, but said ground forces in Iraq and Syria must secure any gains produced by the bombing campaign. Meanwhile, France’s defense minister said ISIS has demonstrated a rare ability to fight as an organized military group while simultaneously carrying out terrorist attacks.
The main work of forcing ISIS from the cities it has taken must be done by local, American-trained ground troops because airstrikes can easily kill civilians along with the targeted militants.
“When we have an effective partner on the ground, ISIL can be pushed back,” Obama said after meeting with his national security team during a rare visit to the Pentagon Monday.
The U.S. military, which has been training Iraqi security forces, recently pledged to begin training tribal fighters as well. Simultaneously, U.S. and allied warplanes have conducted more than 5,000 airstrikes, killing “thousands of fighters” since August, Obama said.
“This will not be quick. This is a long-term campaign,” Obama said. “ISIL is opportunistic and it is nimble.”
The group has fought like a “classical army,” used urban warfare tactics, and executed terrorist operations, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told reporters after his own Pentagon meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter on Monday morning.
“They can do all three at the same time,” Le Drian said. “It is no longer a terrorist group; it has become a terrorist army.”
ISIS operated in large formations, similar to a traditional army, as it captured large swaths of land across Syria and northern Iraq. The group has since operated in smaller cells to avoid being targeted by U.S., NATO and Arab-state warplanes. The Pentagon warned of this type of hybrid warfare in its new National Military Strategy, announced last week.
In Syria, meanwhile, the U.S. military has stepped up its airstrikes. Over the weekend, warplanes pounded Ar-Raqqah, an ISIS stronghold in northern Syria, destroying “vital ISIL-controlled structures and transit routes in Syria,” the Pentagon said in a statement Sunday.