The U.S. Congress has authorized funds to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels fighting the Sunni extremist group known as the Islamic State. President Barack Obama has vowed “to degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State.
It has taken over a vast territory in Iraq and Syria. It has carried out mass killings, said to have sold women and children as slaves and beheaded, among others, two Americans and one Briton.
Since August, the United States has launched air strikes against Islamic State positions in Iraq. Obama has also approved air strikes on IS targets in Syria.
Ultimately, what can be done to defeat the group, also known as ISIL or ISIS?
Retired Army General Jack Keane, Chairman of the Institute for the Study of War and former vice-chief of the U.S. Army, said the main IS targets are in Syria.
“This would be the support infrastructure of ISIS, specifically staging bases for troops and equipment, supply bases, training areas for the hundreds of recruits that are pouring into Syria every week, command and control,” Keane said, “and also the very long logistics, line of communication, a road network that leads from eastern Syria into Iraq. And also frontline troop positions when they are not in populated areas.”
But, Keane said, while air strikes are valuable, they alone will not defeat Islamic State militants.
“They can deny ISIS the freedom of movement and also take their initiative away, but at the end of the day, the only thing that can really defeat ISIS is a ground counteroffensive campaign to retake the territory that has been lost essentially in Iraq and eventually in Syria,” said Keane.
Obama has vowed not to deploy U.S. troops in a combat role either in Iraq or Syria.
The nation’s top military officer, Army General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a congressional committee, however, that U.S. forces ultimately could be used “to accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific ISIL targets.”
Keane goes one step further.
“We also need special forces with these units to be able to call in air strikes during the counteroffensive, during the ground campaign,” he said. “These are special kinds of airplanes with special munitions and pilots that are trained to support ground forces who are conducting offensive or defensive operations, So that is important, but it is not in the president’s plan right now, he does not intend to have any air controllers on the ground, which is a huge mistake.”
Long road likely
What is in the president’s plan, and approved by Congress, is $500 million to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels to fight the IS group.
Experts say that may take a long time.
Retired Admiral James Stavridis, former supreme allied commander at NATO — and currently Dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University — said it is extremely difficult to determine the Syrian moderates are.
“I don’t know who the moderates are,” he said. “I think that they are by and large Syrian citizens who find the regime objectionable, the Assad regime rejectionable,” he said. “Many of them have been victims of the regime and they decided that enough is enough. How do you characterize them as moderates along a spectrum that goes from moderate to extremist? I don’t know.”
Stavridis said if the United States gets more involved militarily in the fight against IS militants, it might fuel extremism in the region.
“That’s a risk that we have to take,” he said. “You always have to balance the risk of creating more of what some have called the ‘accidental guerillas, ’the ‘accidental insurgents’ — those who may take up arms because of U.S. participation, that’s a risk. But I think compared to simply standing back and hoping that things get better, I think that’s a risk worth taking.”
Stavridis said the United States must not fight the Islamic State alone. Washington has been trying to build an international coalition to defeat IS, and it now includes some Arab and European states.
This is not the first time the United States and its allies have tried to defeat this group. Formerly known as al-Qaida in Iraq, the militants were beaten down at one point only to come back stronger.