(CNSNews.com) – Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Thursday called the threat posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS/ISIL) “beyond anything that we’ve seen,” and did not rule out the possibility that the U.S. could carry out airstrikes against the group inside Syria.
During a joint press conference at the Pentagon with chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, Hagel was asked why the U.S. does not “go after ISIL where they started, which is in Syria.” (The group actually originated in Iraq, broadened its focus in 2012 to the Syrian conflict where its ranks have been swelled by thousands of foreign fighters, and is now active in both countries.)
“We continue to explore all options regarding ISIL and how best we can assist our partners in that area – the Middle East, particularly in Iraq – against ISIL,” Hagel said, noting that President Obama’s request for a $5 billion anti-terrorism fund included $500 million dollars to assist moderate rebels in Syria.
“So that’s what we’re looking at, that’s what we’re doing and we’ll continue to stay focused as I said on – on what we’re doing now, and exploring all options as we go forward.”
Asked specifically whether those options could include airstrikes inside Syria, Hagel replied, “Like I said, we’re looking at all options.”
Dempsey agreed that the threat posed by ISIS could not be addressed only on the Iraq side of what he said was “essentially at this point a non-existent border.” But he said he was not predicting U.S. airstrikes in Syria.
Hagel and Dempsey both gave stark assessments about the scope of the threat posed by ISIS, which the defense secretary called “an imminent threat to any interests we have, whether it’s in Iraq or anywhere else.”
ISIS was “as sophisticated and well-funded as any group we have seen,” Hagel said.
“They are beyond just a terrorist group. They marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess,” he continued. “They are tremendously well-funded. This is beyond anything that we’ve seen. So we must prepare for everything.”
Dempsey said it was possible to contain ISIS, “but not in perpetuity. This is an organization that has an apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision which will eventually have to be defeated.”
He spoke of the need for “a coalition in the region that takes on the task of defeating ISIS over time. ISIS will only truly be defeated when it’s rejected by the 20 million disenfranchised Sunni that happen to reside between Damascus and Baghdad.”
Dempsey also said that a “narrow focus on al-Qaeda” has shifted to recognize that there are now organizations, in some cases loosely connected or affiliated, across the huge swath of territory running from Afghanistan, across the Arabian peninsula into Yemen, the Horn and Africa and north and west Africa.
“In general the conflict against those groups – most of which are local, some of which are regional and some of which are global in nature – that’s going to be a very long contest. It’s ideological; it’s not political. It’s religious in many cases.”