President Barack Obama met with the military leaders of 21 countries Tuesday to discuss the ongoing strategy to combat the Islamic State terrorist group as he faces mounting pressure at home and abroad to take more aggressive action in Iraq and Syria.
Obama did not announce any new or expanded initiatives following the meeting at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, but he said there had been “important successes” against the terror group.
“As with any military effort, there will be days of progress and there are going to be periods of setback,” Obama told reporters after the meeting. “We are united in our goal.”
Obama said the strategy needs to include a military and humanitarian response, and members need to communicate an “alternative vision to those attracted” to the fighting.
“This is going to be a long-term campaign,” he said.
After some early successes, such as helping displaced minorities in the Sinjar Mountains and defending the Mosul Dam, a series of setbacks has prompted questions about the strength of the U.S.-led mission.
The Islamic State, also called ISIS or ISIL, is close to taking over the Kurdish town of Kobani in Syria, on the Turkish border, and has made gains in Anbar province in Iraq, near the Baghdad International Airport.
“They’re winning and we’re not,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said on CNN. “But there has to be a fundamental re-evaluation of what we’re doing, because we are not – we are not degrading and ultimately destroying ISIS.”
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest insisted Tuesday that Obama’s strategy is successful and would continue.
“We’re in the early days of the execution of that strategy,” Earnest said. “But certainly, the early evidence indicates that this strategy is succeeding.”
Earnest said the airstrikes were never supposed to dramatically reverse overnight the situation on the battlefield.
“We’ve been pretty candid about the fact that this is a longer-term proposition,” he said. “And it’s predicated on something that necessarily does take a long time, which is building up the capacity and capability of forces on the ground to take the fight to ISIL.”
Obama met with defense leaders from Australia, Bahrain, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Egypt, France, Germany, Iraq, Italy, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom.
Obama joined Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who convened a two-day meeting of defense leaders. Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of the U.S. Central Command, and Gen. Joseph Votel, the commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command, also attended.
Tuesday’s meetings marks the fourth of coalition partners and the largest gathering to date, following gatherings in Jordan, Paris and Bonn, Germany.
“The objective of the meeting that Gen. Dempsey put together was to further coordinate and organize countries’ efforts to participate in the coalition,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters in Peru. “They will be working through those specific areas and defining specific contributions that the nations will make.”
Turkey’s participation in the meeting Tuesday was notable.
On Monday, Turkey formally denied news reports that it had agreed to open a major air base to U.S. and other coalition combat aircraft fighting Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq.
Turkish warplanes began bombing Kurdish extremists not far away in southern Turkey, raising questions about whether Turkey’s attempt to make peace with its large Kurdish population can be saved.