By Michael Hernandez
WASHINGTON (AA) – Daesh may not be pushed out of its strongholds in Iraq and Syria by the end of President Barack Obama’s final year in office, his national security advisor has said.
“I can’t say with confidence that that will be done,” Susan Rice said Thursday during a Washington Post-sponsored forum. “I’m not saying it won’t happen, I’m just not sitting here to predict that it will happen in that time.”
The U.S. has been leading a coalition of more than 60 nations in seeking to oust the terror group from its safe havens in Iraq and Syria using a combination of airstrikes and partnerships with local forces.
The major goals of the effort lie in pushing the group out of Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, and Daesh’s self-proclaimed “capital” of Raqqa.
“I can say that we will be further along towards that goal,” Rice said. “We’ve steadily been making progress on the ground, we’re tightening the noose around both of those places.”
Regarding Syrian regime leader Bashar al-Assad’s recent comments that his forces would retake “every inch” of Syrian territory from his foes, Rice said the goal is “not possible".
“It’s not possible because he doesn’t have the capacity. It’s not possible because those who have backed him are not prepared to be that much all-in with their own ground forces,” she said, referring to Syria’s principal backers Russia, Iran, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
Assad’s Syrian Arab Army was facing successive battlefield defeats prior to Russia’s military intervention in the country, which began last September.
Since then the tide of war has largely turned in Assad’s favor as he mounts ground offensives across the country backed by Russian airpower and allied ground forces from Iran and Hezbollah.
But Russia’s air campaign has come under scrutiny for alleged indiscriminate bombing resulting in mass civilian casualties. Moscow has insisted that it is targeting Daesh and the Nusra Front, which are excluded from an ongoing truce in the country, as well as forces that have allied themselves with the terror groups.
Rice acknowledged that while in some places Russia is targeting Daesh and militant groups that are co-mingled with Nusra, “in other places, such as north of Aleppo right now, they are hitting opposition forces that we believe are separate and distinct from al-Nusra.”
“Part of the work that we are doing,” she said, “is to establish a common picture of who is who on the ground, and therefore who is a legitimate target and who is an illegitimate target.”
That’s led to “mixed results,” she said.
Shifting to ongoing hostilities in Ukraine where Moscow supports separatist rebels in the country’s east, Rice voiced a note of optimism, saying that with "sufficient will" from all parties the violence could be resolved by the end of Obama’s term.
“This is an area where we believe that with sufficient will, particularly on the side of the Russians, but to some extent obviously on the Ukrainian side as well, we have the wherewithal to resolve the issue and implement Minsk in the time that remains,” she said.
“We are working very hard to try to do our part to enable that,” she said. “This is something we can get done, we want to get done.”