As fighters from the Islamic State surge in Iraq toward control of Anbar province in the west and the town of Kobane on the Syrian border , U.S. commanders and diplomats are signaling that the United States must expand its military operations before the extremists control even more territory.
“Too few and too slow,” is the way one official characterizes efforts so far. Supporters of an expanded American role appear to include Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
President Obama faces difficult new options to bolster allies in both Syria and Iraq. As he weighs the recommendations for tougher action, Obama must worry that, because of the deteriorating situation, he is being pushed down the very path of escalation he had hoped to avoid.
U.S. strategy for Iraq and Syria is being managed by Gen. John Allen, the retired Marine who’s serving as special envoy and just returned from the region. The proposals under discussion at the White House are likely to include:
●Sending more Apache gunships to Iraq to counter the extremists’ offensive in Anbar province. Some of these deadly attack helicopters are already at Baghdad’s airport, and more could be sent to al-Asad Air Base in western Anbar, which remains under government control. From these two bases, a squadron of 20 or so Apaches could attack the Islamic State’s enclaves from al-Qaim in the northwest to Abu Ghraib in the Baghdad suburbs. Dempsey pointed to the Apaches last weekend in a TV interview as an “immediately available” tool to defend the Baghdad airport.
●Stepping up airstrikes over Iraq and Syria. Some officials argue that, to stop the extremists’ advance, 150 to 200 sorties a day may be needed, a sharp increase from 10 a day recently. Air power has limited effect against this insurgency, but Pentagon and State Department officials say right now it may be the only way to prevent further losses.
●Accelerate the training of the Iraqi army and a new Sunni national guard. Hundreds of foreign trainers, drawn from the special forces of the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Australia and other nations, will be working with the Iraqi military. A similar effort is needed for the Sunni guard. Plans call for three battalions of tribal fighters in Anbar and three more in Salahuddin province. U.S. officials believe a quick start for this program will boost morale among Sunni tribal leaders who say they’re ready to fight the extremists but lack the tools.
●Create a border strip in northern Syria that’s safe from air attacks by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Though Obama has long resisted this no-fly zone, many U.S. officials now argue it’s essential, not least to steady Turkey. Kerry signaled his support last week, and Dempsey agreed Sunday: “Do I anticipate that there could be circumstances in the future where that [a no-fly zone] would be part of the campaign? Yeah.”
●Speed the training of the moderate Free Syrian Army so it can battle the Islamic State’s militants. Easier said than done: The FSA is a ragtag force that must be rebuilt into a real rebel army with a solid command structure. Some officials argue for doubling the planned force to 10,000 and speeding completion of training camps in Jordan, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
●Warn the Assad government that the U.S.-led coalition won’t permit attacks on the moderate opposition. Given the reluctance of the United States, Turkey and other nations to send ground troops into Syria, and the popular hatred of Assad’s army, the FSA represents what generals call the “defeat mechanism” against the extremists. Assad must stop assaulting these forces that can liberate Sunni areas from the Islamic State.
●Finally and most painfully, authorize U.S. advisers to join the “assault echelon” when Iraqis go into battle against the extremists. This will be the hardest recommendation for Obama to accept, because it fuzzes his pledge not to use combat troops in Iraq. But one official says putting U.S. advisers “in harm’s way” will be crucial in stiffening Iraqi resolve. Dempsey said Sunday that the “decisive” battles for Mosul and other extremist strongholds “will require a different kind of advising and assisting” from what Obama initially advocated.
Here’s the way Kerry summed up the situation to a colleague recently: With the extremists on the march, Obama faces a “fundamental question” of how to carry out his pledge to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State. It’s a terrible dilemma for the president but an inescapable one.