President Obama has found his voice on the Paris attacks, showing the strength of resolve that the American people longed to hear from him in the escalating battle against the terrorist group known variously as ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh.
It took a week of being battered in the media for Obama to overcome his resistance to overstate the killers’ power. But on Tuesday he finally declared with a measure of emotion that the terrorists are “a scourge that threatens all of us,” that it wasn’t only an attack on one of the great cities “but an attack on the world,” and to vow, “Make no mistake, we will win and groups like ISIL will lose.”
Obama was standing with visiting French President François Hollande in a show of solidarity at the White House when he said those words. Hollande had come to Washington with a wish list of ways the two allies could ramp up the fight against ISIL. Judging from their comments, and their hugs, they were in agreement both on what could be done—more airstrikes, more intelligence sharing, including airline passenger lists—and what they would not do, which is put ground troops into the conflict in Syria.
No boots on the ground has long been Obama’s position, and Hollande said when asked directly by a French reporter, “France will not intervene militarily on the ground. It is for the local forces to do so.”
In terms of what diplomats call “deliverables,” the two presidents didn’t appear to settle anything that couldn’t have been done at the staff level. But the “optics” said it all. Hollande was shuttling between countries to generate support and forge a new coalition with Russia to battle ISIS. He meets with President Putin in Moscow on Thursday, a meeting made more urgent by the news early Tuesday that Turkish jets had shot down a Russian warplane on the Syrian border.
Obama said his top priority is to keep the incident from escalating, and that he would be talking to Turkish President Erdogan. He didn’t say he would be calling Putin, a noticeable omission especially given the increased military role that Russia is playing in Syria, and Russia’s importance in any diplomatic settlement. Obama may have regained his rhetorical footing on the Paris attacks, making up some ground lost over the past week in terms of his leadership here at home. But his approach to Russia is a work in progress, or Hollande wouldn’t be running interference.
Obama compared the coalition of 65 countries pushing back against ISIL for more than a year and led by the United States to what Putin has assembled. “Russia right now is a coalition of two, Iran and Russia, supporting [Syrian dictator Bashar al-] Assad,” Obama said. He then named the diverse countries aligned with the United States, which include France and the NATO allies, some Arab countries, Australia and countries in Southeast Asia.
“Russia’s the outlier,” he said. While that is true numerically, unless and until Russia shifts away from backing Assad, and focuses on ISIL, the stalemate in Syria will continue. Asked if there was a date by when Assad must leave, both presidents demurred.
Russia’s support for Assad has long been the sticking point in reaching a diplomatic resolution to the Syrian civil war. Obama’s approach has been mainly to isolate Putin when appealing to his desire to restore Russian grandeur might yield better results. Obama showed no give on Assad, and neither did Hollande. They’re gambling that their unified front combined with recent events could get Putin to switch course.
“There is a potential convergence of interests between the parties,” Obama said, noting that Russia has had “several hundred of their own people killed by ISIL,” and the flow of foreign fighters from Russia and its former republics into Syria pose a significant terrorist threat to the Russian homeland.
If the downing of the civilian Russian jet by a bomb planted by ISIL wasn’t enough to get Putin to focus on ISIL, maybe the brush with Turkey’s fighter jets will convince him. The fact that the Russian warplane was in disputed airspace is part of what Obama called the problems of having the Russian military targeting opposition forces supported by the United States instead of ISIL.
Obama used the platform of appearing with America’s oldest ally to speak directly to the American people, and to assure them that the government’s anti-terrorism apparatus is going full tilt around the clock, and that refugees who enter the country are heavily scrutinized. “Nobody who sets foot in America goes through more security than refugees,” he said. He commended Hollande for welcoming to France an additional 30,000 Syrian refugees over the next two years.
Obama changed his tone markedly on the threat ISIS poses to the world, but he is making no changes in his strategy. He travels next week to Paris for a global climate conference with the heads of state from almost 200 countries. “What a powerful rebuke to the terrorists it will be when the world stands as one and shows that we will not be deterred from building a better future for our children,” he said.
Obama vigorously defended his strategy to combat ISIL, said he had ordered a national security review before the Paris attacks, and that what is working in Syria and Iraq will be “scaled up.”
He acknowledged the fears of the American people about admitting refugees, but said, “We cannot and we will not succumb to fear. Nor can we allow fear to divide us—for that’s how terrorists win. …We’re vigilant. We take precautions, but we go about our business.” It’s a hard line, and one running contrary to public opinion on the matter. And right now, that’s all to Obama’s credit.