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Barack Obama Holds a News Conference at the G-20 Summit. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired November 16, 2015 - 10:00   ET


[10:00:02] BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: What is different this time and what gives us some degree of hope is that, as I said, for the first time all the major countries on all sides of the Syrian conflict agree on a process that is needed to end this war.

So, while we are very clear-eyed about the very, very difficult road still ahead, the United States, in partnership with our coalition, is going to remain relentless on all fronts: military, humanitarian and diplomatic. We have the right strategy and we're see it through.

With that I'm going to take some questions and I will begin with Jerome Cartillier of AFP.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President.

129 people were killed in Paris on Friday night. ISIL took responsibility for the massacre, sending the message that they could now target civilians all over the world. The equation has clearly changed. Is it time for your strategy to change?

OBAMA: Well, keep in mind what we have been doing. We have a military strategy that involves putting enormous pressure on ISIL through air strikes, that has put assistance and training on the ground with Iraqi forces. We're now working with Syrian forces as well to squeeze ISIL, cut off their supply lines.

We've been coordinating internationally to reduce their financing capabilities, the oil they're trying to ship outside. We are taking strikes against high-value targets, including most recently, against the individual who was on the video executing civilians, who had already been captured. As well as the head of ISIL in Libya, so it's not just in Iraq and Syria.

And so on the military front, we are continuing to accelerate what we do. as we find additional partners on the ground that are effective, we work with them more closely. I've already authorized additional special forces on the ground who are going to be able to improve that coordination.

On the counterterrorism front, keep in mind that since I came into office, we have been worried about these kinds of attacks. The vigilance that the United States government maintains and the cooperation we're consistently expanding with our European and other partners in going after every single terrorist network, is robust and constant.

And every few weeks I meet with my entire national security team and we go over every single threat stream that is presented. And where we have relevant information, we share it immediately with our counterparts around the world, including our European partners.

On aviation security, we have over the last several years been working so that at various airport sites, not just in the United States, but overseas, we are strengthening our mechanisms to screen and discover passengers who should not be boarding flights and improving the matters in which we are screening luggage that is going on board.

And on the diplomatic front, we've been working consistently to try to get all the parties together, to recognize that there is a moderate opposition inside of Syria that can form the basis for a transition government.

And to reach out not only to our friends, but also to the Russians and Iranians who are on the other side of this equation to explain to them that ultimately an organization like ISIL is the greatest danger to them as well as to us.

So, there will be an intensification of the strategy we put forward, but the strategy that we are putting forward is the strategy that ultimately is going to work. But as I said from the start, it is going to take time.

And what's been interesting is in the aftermath of Paris, as I listen to those who suggest something else needs to be done. Typically the things they suggest need to be done are things that we are already doing. The one exception is that there had been a few who suggested that we should put large numbers of U.S. troops on the ground.

[10:05:08] And keep in mind that, you know, we have the finest military in the world and we have the finest military minds in the world, and I've been meeting with them intensively for years now discussing these various options.

And it is not just my view, but the view of my closest military and civilian advisers that that would be a mistake, not because our military could not march into Mosul or Raqqa or Ramadi and temporarily clear out ISIL, but because we would see a repetition of what we've seen before, which is if you do not have local populations that are committed to inclusive governance and who are pushing back against ideological extremes that they resurface unless we're prepared to have a permanent occupation of these countries.

And let's assume that we were to send 50,000 troops into Syria, what happens when there's a terrorist attack generated from Yemen? Do we then send more troops into there? Or Libya perhaps? Or if there's a terrorist network that's operating anywhere else in North Africa or in Southeast Asia? So a strategy has to be one that can be sustained, and the strategy that we're pursuing, which focuses on going after targets, limiting wherever possible the capabilities of ISIL on the ground, systematically going after their leadership, their infrastructure, strengthening Shia -- or strengthening Syrian and Iraqi forces that are -- and Kurdish forces that are prepared to fight them, cutting off their borders and squeezing the space in which they can operate until ultimately we're able to defeat them, that's the strategy we're going to have to pursue.

And we will continue to generate more partners for that strategy, and there are going to be some things that don't work, there'll be some strategies we try that do work. And when we find strategies that work, we will double down on those.

Margaret Brennan, CBS.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. A more than year-long bombing campaign in Iraq and in Syria has failed to contain the ambition and the ability of ISIS to launch attacks in the West. Have you underestimated their abilities, and will you widen the rules of engagement for U.S. forces to take more aggressive action?

OBAMA: No, we haven't underestimated our abilities, this is precisely why we're in Iraq as we speak and why we're operating in Syria as we speak. And it's precisely why we have mobilized 65 countries to go after ISIL and why I hosted at the United Nations an entire discussion of counterterrorism strategies and curbing the flow of foreign fighters. And why we've been putting pressure on those countries that have not been as robust as they need to in tracking the flow of foreign fighters in and out of Syria and Iraq.

And so, there has been an acute awareness on the part of my administration from the start that it is possible for an organization like ISIL that has such a twisted ideology and has shown such extraordinary brutality and complete disregard for innocent lives that they would have the capabilities to potentially strike in the West. And because thousands of fighters have flowed from the West and are European citizens -- a few hundred from the United States but far more from Europe -- that when those foreign fighters returned, it posed a significant danger. And we have consistently worked with our European partners disrupting plots in some cases. Sadly, this one was not disrupted in time.

[10:10:05] But understand that one of the challenges we have in this situation is that if you have a handful of people who don't mind dying, they can kill a lot of people.

That's one of the challenges of terrorism. It's not their sophistication or the particular weaponry that they possess, but it is the ideology they carry with them and their willingness to die. And in those circumstances, tracking each individual, making sure that we are disrupting and preventing these attacks is a constant effort at vigilance and requires extraordinary coordination.

Now, part of the reason that it is important what we do in Iraq and Syria is that the narrative that ISIL developed of creating this caliphate makes it more attractive to potential recruits. So when I said that we are containing their spread in Iraq and Syria, in fact, they control less territory than they did last year. And the more we shrink that territory, the less they can pretend that they are somehow a functioning state and the more it becomes apparent that they are simply a network of killers who are brutalizing local populations.

That allows us to reduce the flow of foreign fighters, which then over time will lessen the numbers of terrorists who can potentially carry out terrible acts like they did in Paris. And that's what we did with Al Qaida. That doesn't mean, by the way, that Al Qaida no longer possesses the capabilities of potentially striking the West. Al Qaida in the peninsula that operates primarily in Yemen, we know has consistently has tried to target the West and we are consistently working to disrupt those acts.

But despite the fact that they have not gotten as much attention as ISIL, they still pose a danger as well. And so our goals here consistently have to be -- to be aggressive and to leave no stone unturned, but also recognize this is not conventional warfare. We play into the ISIL narrative when we act as if they're a state and we use routine military tactics that are designed to fight a state that is attacking another state.

That's not what's going on here. These are killers with fantasies of glory, who are very savvy when it comes to social media and are able to infiltrate the minds of not just Iraqis or Syrians, but disaffected individuals around the world. And when they activate those individuals, those individuals can do a lot of damage.

And so we have to take the approach of being rigorous on our counterterrorism efforts and consistently improve and figure out how we can get more information, how we can infiltrate these networks, how we can reduce their operational space, even as we also try to shrink the amount of territory they control to defeat their narrative.

Ultimately, to reclaim territory from them is going to require, however, an ending of the Syrian civil war, which is why the diplomatic efforts are so important. And it's going to require an effective Iraqi effort that bridges Shia and Sunni differences, which is why our diplomatic efforts inside Iraq are so important as well.

Jim Avila?

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President.

In the days and weeks before the Paris attacks, did you receive a warning in your daily intelligence briefing that an attack was imminent? If not, does that not call into question the current assessment that there is no immediate specific credible threat to the United States today?

[10:15:01] And secondly, if I could ask you to address your critics who say that your reluctance to enter another Middle East war and your preference of diplomacy over using the military makes the United States weaker and emboldens our enemies?

OBAMA: Jim, every day we have threat streams coming through the intelligence transom. And as I said, every several weeks, we sit down with all my national security, intelligence and military teams to discuss various threat streams that may be generated.

And the concerns about potential ISIL attacks in the West have been there for over a year now. And they come through periodically. There were no specific mentions of this particular attack that would give us a sense of something that we need -- that we could provide French authorities, for example, or act on ourselves.

But typically, the way the intelligence works is, there will be a threat stream that is from one source, how reliable is that source, perhaps some signal intelligence gets picked up. It's evaluated. Some of it is extraordinarily vague and unspecific, and there's no clear timetable.

Some of it may be more specific. And then, folks chase down that threat to see what happens. I'm not aware of anything that was specific in the sense that -- would have given a premonition about a particular action in Paris that would allow for law enforcement or military actions to disrupt it.

With respect to the broader issue of my critics, to some degree, I answered the question earlier. I think that, when you listen to what they actually have to say, what they're proposing, most of the time, when pressed, they describe things we're already doing.

Maybe they're not aware that we're already doing them. Some of them seem to think that, if I was just more bellicose in expressing what we're doing, that that would make a difference. Because that seems to be the only thing that they're doing, is talking as if they're tough.

But I haven't seen particular strategies that they would suggest that would make a real difference.

Now, there are a few exceptions. And as I said, the primary exception is those who would deploy U.S. troops on a large scale to retake territory, either in Iraq or now in Syria. And at least they have their honesty to go ahead and say that's what they would do. I just addressed why I think they're wrong. There have been some

who are well meaning, and I don't doubt their sincerity when it comes to the issue of the dire humanitarian situation in Syria, who, for example, call for a no-fly zone or a safe zone of some sort.

And this is an example of the kind of issue where I will sit down with our top military and intelligence advisers, and we will painstakingly go through what does something like that look like.

And typically, after we've gone through a lot of planning and a lot of discussion and really working it through, it is determined that it would be counterproductive to take those steps -- in part, because ISIL does not have planes. So the attacks are on the ground.

A true safe zone requires us to set up ground operations. And you know, the bulk of the deaths that have occurred in Syria, for example, have come about not because of regime bombing, but because of on-the-ground casualties.

Who would come in, who would come out of that safe zone? How would it work? Would it become a magnet for further terrorist attacks? And how many personnel would be required, and how would it end?

[10:20:06] All right? There's a whole set of questions that have to be answered there.

I guess my point is this, Jim. My only interest is to end suffering and keep the American people safe. And if there's a good idea out there, then we're going to do it. I don't think I've shown hesitation to act, whether it's with respect to Bin Laden or with respect to sending additional troops in Afghanistan or keeping them there if it is determined that it's actually going to work.

But we do not do, what I do not do, is to take actions either because it is going to work politically or it is somehow, in the abstract, make America look tough or make me look tough.

And maybe part of the reason is because every few months I go to Walter Reed. And I see a 25 year old kid that is paralyzed or has lost his limbs. And some of those are people I've ordered into battle.

And so I can't afford to play some of the political games that others may. We'll do what's required to keep the American people safe. And I thinks it's entirely appropriate in a democracy, to have a serious debate about these issues.

Folks want to pop off and have opinions about what they think they would do, present a specific plan. If they think that somehow their advisers are better than the chairman of my joint chiefs of staff and the folks who are actually on the ground, I want to meet them. And we can have that debate.

But what I'm not interested in doing is posing or pursuing some notion of American leadership or America winning or whatever other slogans they come up with that has no relationship to what is actually going to work to protect the American people and to protect people in the region who are getting killed and to protect our allies and the people like France. I'm too busy for that.

Jim Acosta.

QUESTION: Thank you very much, Mr. President.

I wanted to go back to something you said to Margaret earlier when you said you have not underestimated ISIS' abilities. This is an organization that you once described as a JV team, that evolved into a force that is now occupying territory in Iraq and Syria and is now able to use that safe haven to launch attacks in other parts of the world.

How is that not underestimating their capabilities? And how is that contained, quite frankly? And I think a lot of Americans have this frustration that they see that the United States has the greatest military in the world, it has the backing of nearly every other country in the world when it comes to taking on ISIS.

I guess the question is, and if you'll forgive the language, is why can't we take out these bastards?

OBAMA: Well, Jim, I just spent the last three questions answering that very question. So, I don't know what more you want me to add. I think I've described very specifically what our strategy is. And I've described very specifically why we do not pursue some of the other strategies that have been suggested.

This is not, as I said, a traditional military opponent. We can retake territory. And as long as we leave our troops there, we can hold it. But that does not solve the underlying problem of eliminating the dynamics that are producing these kinds of violent extremist groups.

And so we are going to continue to pursue the strategy that has the best chance of working even though it does not offer the satisfaction, I guess, of a neat headline or an immediate resolution.

[10:25:11] And part of the reason, as I said, Jim, is because there are costs to the other side.

I just want to -- I just want to remind people. This is not an abstraction. When we send troops in, those troops get injured, they get killed, they're away from their families. Our country spends hundreds of billions of dollars. And so, given the fact that there are enormous sacrifices involved in any military action, it's best that we don't, you know, shoot first and aim later. It's important for us to get the strategy right and the strategy that we are pursuing is the right one.

Ron Allen?

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. I think a lot of people around the world and in America are concerned because given the strategy you're pursuing, and it's been more than a year now, ISIS' capabilities seem to be expanding. Were you aware that they had the capability of pulling off the kind of attack that they did in Paris? Are you concerned and do you think they have that same capability to strike in the United States?

And do you think that, given all you've learned about ISIS over the past year or so and given all the criticism about your underestimating them, do you think you really understand this enemy well enough to defeat them and to protect the homeland?

OBAMA: All right. So this is another variation on the same question. And I guess -- let me try it one last time. The -- we have been fully aware of the potential capabilities of them carrying out a terrorist attack. That's precisely why we have been mounting a very aggressive strategy to go after them. As I said before, when you're talking about the ability of a

handful of people with not wildly sophisticated military equipment -- weapons, who are willing to die, they can kill a lot of people and preventing them from doing so is challenging for every country. And if there was a swift and quick solution to this, I assure you that not just the United States, but France and Turkey and others who have been subject to these terrorist attacks would have implemented those strategies.

There are certain advantages that the United States has in preventing these kinds of attacks. Obviously, after 9/11 we hardened the homeland, set up a whole series of additional steps to protect aviation, to apply lessons learned. We've seen much better cooperation between the FBI, state governments, local governments. There is some advantages to geography, with respect to the United States.

But having said that, we've seen the possibility of terrorist attacks on our soil. There was the Boston Marathon bombers. Obviously, it did not result in the scale of death that we saw in Paris, but that was a serious attempt at killing a lot of people, by two brothers and a crockpot. And it gives you some sense of, I think, the kinds of challenges that are going to be involved in this going forward.

So again, ISIL has serious capabilities. Its capabilities are not unique. They're capabilities that other terrorist organizations that we track and are paying attention to possess as well. We are going after all of them.

[10:29:53] What is unique about ISIL is the degree to which it has been able to control territory that then allows them to attract additional recruits. And the greater effectiveness that they have on social media and their ability to use that to not only attract recruits to fight in Syria, but also potentially to carry out attacks in the homeland, and in Europe and in other parts of the world.