FORT MEADE, Md., September 11, 2015 — President Barack Obama addressed a variety of national security topics during his unprecedented live multimedia Worldwide Troop Talk here today.
The president’s broad discussion ranged from Russia’s effect on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in the Middle East to the future of U.S. cyber efforts. It took place at the Defense Media Activity’s television studio.
“Here at Fort Meade, we do some of the most important work in helping to coordinate our efforts to make sure that we are bringing to bear all elements of American power against those who would try to do us home here in the homeland or overseas” he told the military audience gathered in the studio.
In addition to the troops with him in the studio on Fort Meade, Obama answered questions and addressed issues brought up by service members around the world, who spoke over teleconference lines or submitted them through social media channels.
‘An Incredible Job’
“We’ve done an incredible job in going after and systematically dismantling the core al-Qaida network that was operating primarily in the Fatah region between Afghanistan and Pakistan,” the president explained in response to a question from a deployed service member about the situation in Syria.
Radical violent extremism, Obama said, has “metastasized” and spread to other areas. He noted that currently ISIL has settled in Syria as “ground zero” for violence, which he said calls for U.S. presence and air domination.
“We are pounding [ISIL] every single day,” Obama said. “Our airmen are doing extraordinary work with the support of all the other service branches, and we’re providing training, assistance and support to the Iraqi security forces on the ground, as they continue to push back ISIL from the territory that they have taken.”
Leverage Air Power
Obama explained that the United States’ strategy has consistently been to leverage air power to support the Iraqi security forces’ ground efforts and, where when possible, the efforts of opposition groups inside Syria to push back ISIL.
These push-back efforts, he said, include thwarting their financing, networks, supplies and infrastructure.
However, Obama lamented that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has brought such destruction upon his people and cities, and created sectarian conflict between Shia and Sunni populations inside Syria, so the country has become “a magnet for jihadists throughout the region.”
Also, the president explained, if Assad remains in place, he will have alienated so much of the Syrian population that a peaceful ceasefire and political settlement will not be possible. “You’ll continue to have this vacuum that’s filled by extremists,” he said.
According to the president, the “good news” is that Russia and the United States share concerns about countering violent extremism and concur that ISIL remains a danger.
“Despite our conflicts with Russia in areas like Ukraine, this is an area potentially of converging interests,” the president said. “The bad news is that Russia continues to believe that Assad, who is their traditional partner, is somebody … worthy of continuing support.”
The president recounted that Russian President Vladimir Putin ignored his advice in recent years to cease financial support and arms sales to Assad. “[Putin] did not take my warnings and as a consequence things have gotten worse,” he said.
As the situation in Syria deteriorated, Obama said the Syrian president has invited Russian advisors and equipment in, but that won’t change the United States’ core strategy to continue pressure on Iraq and Syria.
“We are going to be engaging Russia to let them know that you can’t continue to double down on a strategy, if it’s doomed to fail,” the president said.
“If they’re willing to work with us and the 60-nation coalition that we put together, then there’s the possibility of a political settlement in which Assad would be transitioned out and a new coalition of moderate, secular and inclusive forces could come together to restore order in the country,” he said.
Still, the president acknowledged significant threats from terrorist organizations and ideologies persist in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and North Africa.
The military must also be prepared for traditional threats, from a new Pacific region, where historically the United States has underwritten the security and prosperity of a region that returned after World War II, and where the U.S. role continues as the cornerstone of NATO.
Ultimately, Obama stressed the need to work at every level to ensure service members have the strategy, resources, equipment, and training they need to succeed.
But, the president asserted, in this era those elements are not just a matter of “tanks and rifles.”
“Cyber security is opening a whole new era in which we have to watch out for our adversaries,” Obama said of the new theater for potential conflict.
Obama said he’s seen State and non-state actors have demonstrated an increasing sophistication of hacking and the ability to penetrate systems previously thought to be secure. “Offense is moving faster than defense,” he noted.
At least part of the problem, he said, lies in the original design of the internet. “It was not designed with the expectation that there’d end up being 3 or 4 or 5 billion people doing commercial transactions … they thought this would be an academic network to share papers and formulae.”
Although the United States continues to best understand cyber, the president acknowledged that other countries such as Russia, China and Iran have “caught up.”
As a result, Obama said the United States in recent years has developed a coordinated response, bringing together the military and other government agencies with the private sector to better strengthen defenses.
There is still work to be done, and the president anticipates the United States will need to do more and coordinate with other actors more effectively.
“We going to have to both strengthen overall networks, but we’re also going to have to train millions of individual actors, small businesses, big vendors, [and] individuals in terms of basic cyber hygiene and be much more rapid in responding to attacks,” he said.
“One of our first and most important efforts has to be to get the states that may be sponsoring cyberattacks to understand there comes a point at which we consider this a core national security threat, and will treat it as such.”
On a more personal note, looking down the road to a time when he will no longer be commander in chief -- his term concludes on Jan. 20, 2017 -- Obama said one of the things he will miss most will be working with service members, whom he described as “ambassadors who spread good will” at enormous sacrifice to themselves.
(Follow Amaani Lyle on Twitter: @LyleDoDNews)