Last weekend’s special forces raid, which killed a midlevel Islamic State commander, has revived the debate on overt U.S. military ground action in Syria and Iraq.
The operation was just the second publicized American combat action in Syria since the 2011 start of that country’s civil war. The first was a botched attempt to rescue journalists Steven Sotloff and James Foley, both of whom the group beheaded last year. President Barack Obama has insisted since at least 2013 that the United States would not commit any “boots on the ground,” that is, active combat troops, to the conflict in Syria.
Initial reports claimed that the dead operative’s wife, whom special operators captured in the raid, could provide actionable intelligence on IS’ activities in Syria and Iraq. (RELATED: Special Ops Kill ISIS Commander, Free His Family Slave)
The current U.S. stance against Islamic State consists primarily of airstrikes against the group’s positions in Syria and Iraq, supplemented by the quiet training of forces fighting the jihadis as well as, apparently, these rare covert raids. By contrast, Iranian-backed Iraqi Shiite militias have stepped in to do much of the heavy lifting against IS — a job that Iraq’s own military has been hard-pressed to perform.
Former Army Lt. Col. Ralph Peters gave his analysis on Monday night’s episode of the “O’Reilly Factor.” The FOX News contributor said that while the incident was good news, it was a “one-off,” since “the terrorists are warned, so if we try to do it again … it’s going to be a whole lot tougher.” He concluded that “like it or not, if you want to beat Islamic State, it takes boots on the ground.”
Gen. James Mattis, the former head of U.S. Central Command, has warned that ruling out combat troop deployments would “reassure the enemy in advance that they’re never going to face them.” Sending in warfighters, he told a congressional panel, would potentially require a commitment of time and resources.
The alternative, however, is Iran continuing to fill the security vacuum, which may come with a price for the struggling Baghdad.
In remarks published by The Daily Beast Sunday, Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies said that “the U.S. could do quite a bit more to defeat ISIS,” suggesting that progress is “hindered by a reticence on the part of American decision makers to put boots on the ground.”
Indeed, the generic phrase has plagued Obama’s every move in Iraq.
Massive ISIS gains in the latter half of last year prompted Obama to give a speech about his approach to Iraq.
The speech in turn prompted CBS’s Rebecca Kaplan write up on the speech to lead with, “A day after his top military leader said he would advise sending combat troops into Iraq if it becomes necessary, President Obama doubled down on his pledge not to pursue another ground war in the country.”
That top leader was Martin Dempsey, then-Chairman of The Joint Chiefs Of Staff. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates joined Dempsey, telling CBS, “there will be boots on the ground if there’s to be any hope of success in the strategy.” Both men are known for being shrewd on foreign policy.
The government’s operations against Islamic State are currently authorized by the original 2001 law that permitted combat against al-Qaida. A bill to exercise war powers specifically against Islamic State, called an Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), has failed to come to a congressional vote since its introduction in February.
Officials identified the raid’s target on Tuesday as Fathi Murad al-Tunisi, a less well-known Tunisian than the man who was originally suspected to be behind the pseudonym “Abu Sayyaf.” (RELATED: Who Was ‘Abu Sayyaf,’ Last Weekend’s ISIS Kill?)
There are currently several thousand non-combatant American pairs of “boots on the ground” in Syria, as part of the ongoing program to train and equip rebel groups fighting against both Islamic State and Bashar Assad’s government.
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