Obama defends strategy against Islamic State militants

US would ‘continue to hit’ IS, president tells end-of-year press conference

US president Barack Obama waves after his year end press conference in the Brady Briefing Room at the White House. Photograph: Alex Wong/Getty Images

US president Barack Obama waves after his year end press conference in the Brady Briefing Room at the White House. Photograph: Alex Wong/Getty Images

 

US president Barack Obama used his end-of-year press conference to defend his strategy against Islamic State (IS) militants and trumpet his administration’s accomplishments this year, including the Paris climate change deal and Iran nuclear accord.

Speaking before flying to California to meet relatives of victims of the San Bernardino shootings, Mr Obama said the US would “continue to hit” IS in Iraq and Syria “harder than ever” and was stepping up its support on the ground for local troops.

Mr Obama’s remarks were dominated by national security and foreign policy, coming just two weeks after the killings of 14 people by an IS-inspired couple in California.

In a swipe at Russian president Vladimir Putin, Mr Obama said he had said that Russia’s military operations in Syria would not change the war between Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, who is backed by Moscow, and his internal opponents.

“I do think you have seen from the Russians that after a couple of months they are not really moving the needle that much,” he said.

On the threat of terrorist attacks at home, Mr Obama said the US government could not prevent all attacks in advance and that it was “very difficult for us to detect lone wolf plots” because they were similar to trying to “detect the next mass shooter.” “You don’t always see it,” he said.

Responding to a question about reviewing the social media of people applying for visas to travel to the US, he warned about the limitations of balancing the collection of intelligence for national security purposes with privacy concerns. “No government is going to have the capacity to read every single person’s texts or social media,” he said.

Asked about his seven-year-old promise to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, the US president said he would try to shut the camp in his final year in the White House.

He plans to reduce the number of prisoners at the camp in Cuba to fewer than 100 early next year and said he was still hopeful US Congress would support the closure. “I think we can make a strong argument that Guantanamo continues to be one of the key magnets for jihadi recruitment,” said Mr Obama.

He declined to say what unilateral executive actions he could take to close the prison if the Republican-led Congress objected.

On the eve of an election year, Mr Obama said he believed the next Democratic presidential nominee would be strong and would ultimately be elected president. “I think I will have a Democratic successor and I will campaign hard to make that happen,” he said.

After travelling to San Bernardino, the president will fly on from California to Hawaii, where he grew up, for his annual two-week holiday with his family.

Cutting short a packed press conference, Mr Obama said he had to leave to watch a screening of the new Star Wars movie for children who lost relatives in the Iraq war. “Okay everybody, I gotta get to Star Wars,” he said, leaving the room while wishing the gathered media a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.