- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 13, 2016

President Obama claimed significant progress Wednesday in the military campaign against the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq, but a top Syrian official said President Bashar Assad will not give up control of the war-torn nation, where the extremists have flourished.

After meeting with his national security team at CIA headquarters in Northern Virginia, Mr. Obama emerged to say that the U.S.-led military coalition is pushing back the militants around their strongholds of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria and taking out its leadership.

“We have momentum, and we intend to keep that momentum,” Mr. Obama said of the terrorist group, which also is known as ISIL and ISIS. “The ISIL core in Syria and Iraq continues to shrink. We are focused, and we are going to win.”

Iraqi forces backed by U.S. military advisers are pushing up the Euphrates River Valley toward Mosul, where the militant fighters have been entrenched for two years. In Syria, a coalition of local fighters, some supported by U.S. special operations forces, have severed a key supply line to Mosul from the extremist base of Raqqa.

Mr. Obama said the key to defeating the extremist group is to end Syria’s civil war and that the diplomatic process “must include a transition away from Assad.” That goal appears as distant as ever.

In Geneva, a fresh round of U.N.-brokered peace talks began Wednesday. Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad declared that a transitional government would amount to a coup d’etat and “will never be accepted.”

“This will not happen, not now, nor tomorrow nor ever,” Mr. Mekdad told The Associated Press from his office in Damascus.

A transitional government is the centerpiece of the peace agreement that the U.S., Russia and other world powers reached at a 2012 Geneva Conference. The terms have been left vague intentionally and are supposed to be worked out in the peace talks, but the presumption, at least in the Syrian opposition’s mind, is that a transitional government means one without Mr. Assad.

Syrians voted in parliamentary elections in government-held parts of the country, but the opposition dismissed the balloting as a sham.

U.N. envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura told reporters at the peace talks in Geneva that his recent visits to Iran, Russia and Syria led him to believe that those countries were “supportive to what we are trying to do in terms of a political transition.”

“There was no doubt on that. From Moscow to Tehran, even to Damascus, [they] agreed with the fact that this is the agenda,” he said.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry said he spoke with Mr. de Mistura about the talks and urged all participants “to adhere to the cessation of hostilities.”

“There is an opportunity in these days ahead to be able to negotiate transition according to Geneva Communique of 2012, which is precisely what they say they want,” Mr. Kerry told reporters in Washington. “The Iranians have signed up to it, the Russians have signed up to it. The Turks, the Qataris, the Saudis, the Emiratis, most of the European countries, all of the countries that are part of the International Syrian Support Group.”

Aided by Russian air power, the Syrian army and allied militia have reversed the tide of the war in recent months, making rapid advances against its opponents. Syria also has benefited from a U.S.- and Russian-engineered partial cease-fire, which has allowed it to focus on fighting extremists such as the Islamic State and the Nusra Front, which are excluded from the truce agreement.

The Pentagon said Wednesday that the first phase of military operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is complete and that the U.S.-led coalition is now focused on dismantling the militant group.

Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren said coalition forces have stopped the Islamic State from advancing and have degraded the extremists’ military capabilities.

“We are in the second phase of this operation now, and our task is to dismantle the enemy, fragment them in Iraq and Syria,” Col. Warren said. “Our enemy has been weakened, and we are now working to fracture him.”

The U.S. has launched more than 11,500 airstrikes against the Islamic State since August 2014. Col. Warren said the coalition has “achieved much” in the 20 months since then.

“A year and a half ago, we saw images of ISIL convoys moving freely into Mosul and throughout Iraq. Those days are gone,” he said. “ISIL has lost more than 40 percent of the territory it once controlled in Iraq and in Syria. While ISIL can still put together some complex attacks, they have not been able to take hold of any key terrain for almost a year now. We’ve struck leaders, supply lines, fighters, industrial base and funding sources in both Iraq and Syria.”

Iraqi forces supported by U.S. military advisers are pushing to liberate the city of Mosul, which has been held by the militants for two years. In Syria, the U.S. is supporting local ground forces to pressure and isolate the terrorist group’s base in Raqqa.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

• Dave Boyer can be reached at dboyer@washingtontimes.com.

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