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Obama Praises US-led Coalition, Syrian Training to Defeat IS

In his State of the Union address to Congress on Tuesday, President Barack Obama described U.S. efforts to defeat the Islamic State group in Syria, including the training of Syrian moderates to lead the battle.

Obama praised America’s effort to build a broad coalition of Western and Arab nations to fight terrorists in the Middle East.

"We are also supporting a moderate opposition in Syria that can help us in this effort, and assisting people everywhere who stand up to the bankrupt ideology of violent extremism," he said.

However, "this effort will take time. It will require focus. But we will succeed," Obama said.

Airstrike campaign

The U.S. military has continued airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Syria, and said within the next four to six weeks, it will send troops into the region to train Syrian moderates on how to better fight the terrorists.

But Johnathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said success against the Islamic State group in Syria will require a lot more.

"We are looking at a problem of a pretty significant duration, and I do not believe that just simply vetting and training a small handful of fighters is going to truly help this problem," Schanzer said.

The Pentagon said Syrian rebels will use their combat training first to defend their towns, then to go on the offensive against Islamic State militants, and finally to contribute to a political solution to the Syrian war.

Schanzer said the U.S. can teach moderates how to fight, but it cannot guarantee whom they will target.

"They want to fight [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad]. They want to fight Hezbollah. They want to get Iran out of Syria. That is a significant reason why they are there, and we cannot lose sight of that," he said.

But when it comes to Iran, the president and other Western leaders are looking for changes outside Syria.

Watch related video by VOA's Jeff Seldin

Nuclear negotiations

In making his annual address, Obama said, "Between now and this spring, we have a chance to negotiate a comprehensive agreement that prevents a nuclear-armed Iran; secures America and our allies, including Israel, while avoiding yet another Middle East conflict."

The United States, France, Germany and others have spent years trying to limit Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for easing of economic sanctions. A fight with Assad, one of Iran’s closest allies, could jeopardize nuclear talks.

"All of them are skittish about upsetting the Iranians at this sensitive place in negotiations, and as a result have been fighting with one hand tied behind their back in dealing with Syria," Schanzer said.

Training of Syrian rebels can only begin after U.S. troops complete a vetting process to determine which moderates they can trust. The training will take several months to take effect, and Syrians are already approaching their fourth year of war.

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    Carla Babb

    Carla is VOA's Pentagon correspondent covering defense and international security issues. Her datelines include Ukraine, Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Korea.

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