WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. President Barack Obama admitted Sunday that the United States had underestimated the opportunity that a collapsing Syria would provide for jihadist militants to regroup and stage a sudden comeback.
Speaking to CBS News, the president said that former Al-Qaeda fighters driven from Iraq by U.S. and local forces had been able to gather in Syria to form the newly dangerous Islamic State group.
A U.S.-led coalition of Arab and Western allies has begun an air campaign to counter the group, hitting targets in Iraq and Syria, which Obama called “ground zero for jihadists around the world.”
“I think our head of the intelligence community, Jim Clapper, has acknowledged that they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria,” Obama said, referring to his director of national intelligence.
Asked whether Washington has also overestimated the ability or will of Iraq’s U.S.-trained military to fight the jihadists on its own, Obama said: “That’s true. That’s absolutely true.”
The U.S. leader made his comments in an interview with the “60 Minutes” news show taped on Friday.
Obama said IS propagandists have become “very savvy” in their use of social media, and had lured new recruits “who believed in their jihadist nonsense” from Europe, America and Australia, as well as from Muslim majority countries.
The U.S. president said that part of the solution would be for Syria and Iraq to resolve their domestic political crises.
An enduring solution, Obama said, would require “a change in how not just Iraq, but countries like Syria and some of the other countries in the region, think about what political accommodation means.”
He added: “The Iraqis have to be willing to fight. And they have to be willing to fight in a nonsectarian way — Shia, Sunni, and Kurd — alongside each other against this cancer in their midst.”
Obama said some countries in the region “have now created an environment in which young men are more concerned whether they’re Shia or Sunni, rather than whether they are getting a good education or whether they are able to, you know, have a good job.”
He made his remarks as U.S.-led air strikes in Iraq aimed to deny the IS group vital territory and resources.
“We are assisting Iraq in a very real battle that’s taking place on their soil, with their troops,” Obama said.
“It is in our interest to do that, because ISIL represents sort of a hybrid of not just the terrorist network, but one with territorial ambitions, and some of the strategy and tactics of an army,” he said.
Iraq has remained divided since the departure of U.S. troops, with the Sunni population alienated by the authoritarian Shiite-led government, and Syria has been in full-blown civil war since 2011.
“This is not America against ISIL,” Obama said. “This is America leading the international community to assist a country with whom we have a security partnership with, to make sure that they are able to take care of their business.”