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Obama reflects on the unforeseen rise of ISIS
00:57 - Source: CNN

Fareed Zakaria examines the triumphs and struggles during President Barack Obama’s time in the White House. Watch “The Legacy of Barack Obama” on Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET.

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President Obama came into office hoping to end US military involvement in the Middle East

He was conflicted about how to deal with the rise of ISIS, which he says surprised US intelligence

Washington CNN  — 

ISIS’ march across Iraq and Syria – a campaign that’s forced President Barack Obama to return small numbers of US troops to the region, even after touting an end to the decade-long ground offensives there – came as a surprise to US intelligence, the President told CNN in a new special report.

The terror organization’s rise in a tumultuous Middle East has provided Obama some of the toughest decisions of his presidency, choices that CNN’s Fareed Zakaria explores in “The Legacy of Barack Obama” airing Wednesday.

“The ability of ISIL to not just mass inside of Syria, but then to initiate major land offensives that took Mosul, for example, that was not on my intelligence radar screen,” Obama told Zakaria, using the administration’s term for the Islamic State terror group.

As Obama’s presidency concludes, it’s clearer than ever he’ll depart the White House with Syrians facing nearly unyielding misery.

The city of Aleppo has become a nightmare for the tens of thousands of Syrians still living there, short on food and medical supplies as cold winter weather sets in. The conflict has led to hundreds of thousands of deaths, spurred a destabilizing refugee crisis in Europe, and led to the rise of a terror group that Obama admits he didn’t see coming.

It’s a legacy he says haunts him, but as he explains to Zakaria in Wednesday’s special, the decisions he did make were the best he could muster in a country with no good choices.

Avoiding a large scale ground conflict in Syria “is the smartest decision from a menu of bad options that were available to us,” he told Zakaria for the special, which airs at 9 p.m. ET on CNN.

In interviews with Obama and those who worked in his administration during the early days of the Syrian conflict, a picture emerges of a president conflicted about how best to avoid the bloody reality that eventually emerged.