President Barack Obama admitted that the United States underestimated the threat posed by Islamic State fighters in Syria, as the US-led coalition pressed its air campaign against the jihadists on Monday.
Obama said Washington had also overestimated the effectiveness of the security forces in neighbouring Iraq, which it had trained and supplied but which collapsed across much of the Sunni Arab heartland north and west of Baghdad in the face of a lightning offensive led by IS in June.
As the US-led air campaign in Syria entered its seventh day, coalition strikes hit IS targets during the night, both in its Raqa province stronghold and in Aleppo province further west, a monitoring group said.
In neighbouring Iraq, US-led strikes destroyed two IS checkpoints near insurgent-held Fallujah on Sunday, the Pentagon said, as Iraqi troops fought off a jihadist assault on a strategic Euphrates Valley town downstream.
Speaking to CBS News, Obama admitted his administration had underestimated the opportunity that the three-and-a-half year-old Syrian civil war would provide for jihadist militants to regroup and stage a sudden comeback.
He said that former Al-Qaeda fighters driven from Iraq by US forces in the years before their withdrawal in 2011 with the support of Sunni Arab tribes had been able to regroup in Syria to form the even more dangerous IS.
“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 US-trained military to fight the jihadists on its own, Obama said: “That’s true. That`s absolutely true.”
The US 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.”
“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.”
Washington has said it will press on with “near continuous” strikes against IS in both Iraq and Syria with the support of its coalition allies. In Syria, the raids have increasingly targeted oil and other economic infrastructure that funds the jihadists as well as military targets.
During Sunday night, coalition warplanes hit targets around the IS-held town of Minbej, including a complex of grain silos and a mill that the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said was being operated by civilians.
The group’s director Rami Abdel Rahman said there were initial reports of civilian casualties in the raid, but no confirmed toll.