Since President Obama committed U.S. airpower to help save the Yazidis trapped on Mt. Sinjar, the debate of what America can and should do to counter the rise of ISIS — the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — has been prominent in the national forum. This discussion took on an even greater sense of urgency with the barbaric execution of captured reporter, James Foley. Should U.S. operations be expanded to Syria? What partnerships can and should be perused in the Arab world? Should Iraqi and Syrian Kurds be armed? And, the most divisive issue, should American ground troops be committed to the struggle?
On Tuesday, government officials announced that the Obama administration had approved surveillance of ISIS forces in Syria, but had not authorized any military action within the war-torn country. This was done amid pressure specifically from Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, both of whom have been consistent critics of the president’s hesitance to expand operations against ISIS.
“These actions should now be expanded into a broader strategy to degrade ISIS both in Syria and Iraq, as we have been advocating,” read a statement released jointly by McCain and Graham. “Without a sustained effort to retake Mosul — a center of ISIS activity in Iraq — and to degrade their home base in Syria, we will lose momentum.”
Experts agree that Syria is the site of ISIS’ best-established bases. However, in a country divided between President Bashar Assad, whose removal from power is supported by President Obama, Sunni Rebels, and ISIS — it is very difficult to attack ISIS without tipping the delicate scale.
“We’re not interested in trying to help the Assad regime,” commented an administration official quoted in a Reuter’s report. But, the official admitted, “there are a lot of cross pressures here.”
Retired four-star general and Chairman of the Institute for the Study of War, Jack Keane, in a Wall Street Journal article, advocated aiding the anti-Assad rebels:
“President Obama is reportedly considering providing elements of the Free Syrian Army with weaponry and other tools to begin to push back on both Iranian-backed Syrian forces and al-Qaida and Gulf-backed Islamist extremists. Remember, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is the only force in Syria that has attacked ISIS … Should President Obama choose to do so, air interdiction against targets inside Syria will be a boost that allows FSA moderates to gain ground they have lost over the past year.”
Even more hawkish voices on the topic admit that, in McCain and Graham’s words, “No one believes there is a purely military solution to the threat posed by ISIS.”
F. Gregory Gause III, of the Brookings Institution, wrote that the central cause of the volatile situation in the region is the “collapse of normal state authority.” In light of this, he recommended that U.S. policy focus of strengthening formal Arab governments and forming them into an alliance against ISIS.
“While American air power and intelligence assets certainly have a role to play against ISIS, the more important task for Washington is to keep the anti-ISIS alliance of convenience working,” wrote Gause. “That means engagement with American allies Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Kurdish government in Irbil to keep the pressure on ISIS. It means both support for and pressure on the Iraqi central government to get its act together. It means acknowledging our parallel interest with Iran in this matter. None of this is easy, but it is a much simpler task than having to deal with a consolidated jihadist state at the center of the Middle East.”
His recommendation of working with Shia-controlled Iran, a natural enemy of the fanatically anti-Shia ISIS, is far from simple. Not only would it mean bolstering a long-time U.S. enemy, but, as Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute wrote in an article in The New Republic, “would be like throwing gasoline on a sectarian fire.”
David L. Philips, Director of the Peace-building and Human Rights Program at Columbia University, in a conversation with Hamodia, advocated aiding Syrian Kurdish forces as the main method of attacking ISIS in Syria.
“You can’t defeat ISIS from 30,000 feet in the air,” said Philips dismissing exclusive reliance on airpower. “We have to look to our friends in Syria, who are few and far between. They [the Kurds] have been fighting ISIS for a long time, but are not properly armed or trained.”
Philips felt in general that the Kurdish forces are the key to defeating ISIS in Iraq as well.
“We need boots on the ground and the Obama administration is not going to send U.S. troops,” he said.
“ISIS cannot be contained. The battle is asymmetric. The only way to deal with ISIS is to level the battlefield through air strikes and equip peshmerga [Kurdish for ‘those that face death’] and Iraqi special forces so they can confront and kill them.”
Philips expressed confidence that with a comprehensive program to train and arm Kurds, coupled with U.S. air support, they alone could defeat ISIS, without American ground troops. He cited the Kurds’ success in opening up a humanitarian path to Mt. Sinjar as proof of their potential.
Michael O’Hamlin, National Security Expert, Brookings Institution, in an interview with Hamodia, expressed his view that U.S. ground forces are necessary to defeat ISIS.
“We have to consider significant numbers of special operators and assistance teams to coach and mentor Iraqi forces, give moral support, and keep them close to the Baghdad government.”
In an article published by Brookings, he wrote, “Even the total of all the options I consider plausible would not require more than 10,000 U.S. troops in Iraq at most… Of course, for an American president who has been intent on ending two wars and getting U.S. troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan on his watch, returning to Iraq in the manner I sketch out here would be a bitter pill…Most of all, it is what may be needed to keep America safe. And that, of course, is the president’s main responsibility to the nation.”