WASHINGTON — Facing a stubborn enemy, President Barack Obama professed confidence Wednesday that the United States will keep making progress against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, as the reality set in of a lengthy military conflict with limited prospects for success.
Flanked at the Pentagon by top U.S. military brass, Obama said he was heartened to see that a broad international consensus had emerged that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria poses a threat to the world's security. He said nations around the globe have concluded "that their barbaric behavior has to be dealt with."
"It remains a difficult mission," Obama told Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and his military commanders. "As I've indicated from the start, this is not something that is going to be solved overnight."
The reality check from the commander in chief underscored growing concerns about whether the U.S.-led campaign is working. Obama has pledged to both destroy ISIS and keep U.S. ground troops out of combat — two goals that seem increasingly in conflict.
Two months after the United States began launching air strikes in Iraq that later expanded to Syria, ISIS is far from crippled. It remains in control of most of the territory it has seized in Iraq and Syria, and its fighters appear close to capturing the strategic town of Kobani near Turkey.
Even as the United States claimed progress in the fight, the Pentagon acknowledged that Kobani could still fall and that ISIS could seize additional territory elsewhere.
Unlike in Iraq, where Kurdish forces have made modest gains, there are few forces in Syria capable of taking the fight to ISIS on the ground.
"We don't have a force inside Syria that we can cooperate with and work with," said Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon's spokesman. He said the U.S. was working to train and arm 5,000 moderate Syrian opposition fighters, but that effort is in the early stages and is expected to take months.
The resilience of ISIS amid an onslaught of air strikes by the United States and its partners has become a pointed reminder that a military campaign fought only from the skies can only go so far.
Contesting the notion that the military would ask for ground troops, Kirby said that every Pentagon leader understood Obama's clear instruction that U.S. ground forces won't be returning to the Middle East to fight in Iraq or Syria.