Islamic State expands territory in Syria, Iraq and Libya

The Islamic State made significant gains this week. The group seized Palmyra in central Syria, prompting a plea from UNESCO to spare world-renowned Roman ruins. In Iraq, militants followed up their capture of Ramadi by overrunning Iraqi military positions to the East. And in Libya, they took the city of Sirte. Gwen Ifill reports the cascade of victories raises questions about the fight against IS.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    After a week in which the Islamic State group made dramatic gains in three countries, Iraq, Syria, and Libya, there were new doubts in Washington over whether they can be stopped.

    ISIS fighters trumpeted their conquest of ancient Palmyra in Central Syria after days of fighting. And Syrian state TV confirmed it.

  • WOMAN (through interpreter):

    Syrian national defense forces have withdrawn from Palmyra. Islamic State fighters have entered the city in big numbers and are trying to enter archaeological sites.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Syrian activists reported the militants had, in fact, already seized the world-renowned Roman ruins just outside Palmyra. The site is famous for its 2,000-year-old colonnades and other antiquities.

    And there are fears that ISIS extremists will destroy them, as they have done in Iraq. The head of the global cultural agency UNESCO pleaded today for a cease-fire.

  • IRINA BOKOVA, Director-General, UNESCO:

    Destroying heritage will not achieve anything. Destroying such heritage doesn't mean that you achieve some kind of a victory over your enemy.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    But the seizure of Palmyra does mean that ISIS now controls even more Syrian territory. And hundreds of miles to the east, in Iraq, the militants today followed up their capture of Ramadi by overrunning Iraqi military positions east of the city.

    The group also scored gains in faraway Libya, taking the city of Sirte, hometown of former leader Moammar Gadhafi. The cascade of ISIS victories raised new questions about U.S. reliance on airstrikes to defeat the militants. That issue dominated a Senate hearing, where lawmakers and witnesses took turns blasting the administration.

  • SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-Ariz.:

    While it's still unclear what President Obama is willing to do in Syria, it is clear our partners do not draw confidence from statements of what we will not do.

    GEN. JACK KEANE (RET.), U.S. Army: We are not only failing. We are, in fact, losing this war. Moreover, I can say with certainty that this strategy will not defeat ISIS.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    The president didn't respond directly, as he met with his Cabinet. But in an interview conducted earlier this week with The Atlantic, he offered an appraisal of the situation in Iraq, saying: "I don't think we're losing. Baghdad is consolidated. And ISIL has been significantly degraded across the country."

    At today's White House briefing, spokesman Josh Earnest spoke directly to what will, and won't, happen next.

  • JOSH EARNEST, White House Press Secretary:

    But the president is not going to be in a position where he's going to consider a large-scale U.S. military deployment. And for those who are calling on a change in strategy, I would encourage them to be specific.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    There was word that the U.S. is sending 2,000 anti-tank rockets to Iraq's military to target suicide car bombers before they strike.

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