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Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Hill tells World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh U.S. efforts in Syria fall short

| Monday, Feb. 2, 2015, 11:27 p.m.
Former U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill

Kurdish militia groups, backed by U.S.-led airstrikes, have slowed the momentum of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq said Monday during an appearance in Pittsburgh.

But a plan to train 5,000 Syrians to overthrow President Bashar Assad may be too little, too late, said former U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill. Hill, who helped shape peace in Bosnia and negotiated with the North Koreans, spoke Monday to members of the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh, using his 30 years of experience in international diplomacy to both praise and criticize the Obama administration's tactics.

“ISIS is beginning to be on the run,” said Hill, who was ambassador for about a year under Obama. “Clearly, there has been some progress in terms of breaking the momentum of ISIS.”

The jihadists continued to collapse in rural areas around Kobani near the Syrian border since Kurdish fighters drove the group from the town last week. Although the town has little strategic value, the battle for Kobani marked the first example of direct U.S. support for ground forces fighting the ISIS in Syria.

Daniel Serwer, a Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies professor, cautioned reading too much into the victory in Kobani.

“They are being bent around the edges, but I don't see signs they are running,” Serwer said of ISIS fighters. “They are continuing to hold their major population centers.”

The long-term situation in Syria is more bleak, Hill said. The U.S.-trained fighters need to defeat Assad's main opposition, the al-Qaida-affiliated al-Nusra Front and ISIS, before toppling the regime. It probably won't work, he said.

“We've ended up in a situation where there are no good options,” Hill said.

Maj. Gen. Tony Cuculo, a retired commander who worked under Hill in Iraq, called 5,000 Syrians “a drop in the bucket as far as ground forces go.” He said the war in Syria, now in its fourth year and with a death toll reaching 200,000, will continue to be “a long slow bleed.”

“Early on, there may have been the potential to throw in with a creditable opposition, but that time passed, unfortunately,” Cuculo said. “We need to be entering forcefully with a clear position, but I'm also acknowledging that is very hard.”

Reuters contributed to this report. Aaron Aupperlee is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7986 or aaupperlee@tribweb.com.

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