Senior US officials have provided new details of President Barack Obama’s plan to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State in Syria, along with ideas as to why the strategy is fundamentally flawed.
Rajiv Chandrasekaran of The Washington Post reports that the Syrian opposition force to be recruited, vetted, and trained by the US military and its coalition partners over the next year or so will defend territory held by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) as opposed to taking the fight to areas controlled by the Islamic State (aka ISIS or ISIL).
That’s because an offensive force would require help of forward-deployed US combat teams, which Obama has ruled out in Syria.
“We have a big disconnect within our strategy,” a senior US official involved in Syria and Iraq operations told The Post. “We need a credible, moderate Syrian force, but we have not been willing to commit what it takes to build that force.”
Furthermore, the FSA — which Obama considers to be made up of doctors and pharmacists — is fighting for survival in Syria’s largest city of Aleppo amid assaults from both ISIS and Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Hussam Marie, the Free Syrian Army spokesman for northern Syria, told The New York Times last month that the loss of FSA positions in and around Aleppo would be “unrecoverable” and “a blow to our shared goals of a moderate Syria.”
Basically, the two obvious weaknesses in Obama’s plan are being fully exposed: The US is not willing to partner with current FSA rebels on the ground and is also no longer willing to actively back the rebellion against the Assad regime.
Consequently, Assad is using the breathing room to intensify his bombing campaign on FSA areas, including “200 air force strikes“‘ in 36 hours recently. So it’s unclear how much territory the FSA will actually hold when the US-backed force is ready in late 2015 or 2016.
“You cannot field an effective force if you’re not on the ground to advise and assist them,” a senior US military officer with extensive experience in training the Iraqi and Afghan militaries told The Post.
The US plans to train at least 5,000 moderate Syrian fighters, drawn from refugee populations, to fight ISIS.
The fighters would receive “basic training to secure their villages,” according to Lt. Gen. William Mayville, the director of operations for the Pentagon’s Joint Staff. Mayville added that the force “won’t have the decisive effect” in the battle against ISIS.
Critics of the plan say that the lack of commitment to oust Assad will hinder the recruitment effort.
“It’s immoral to ask these young men to fight and die when we’re not going to protect them from Bashar Assad’s barrel bombs or from ISIS,” Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said recently. “You’re not going to get people to volunteer to do that.”
The CIA estimates that ISIS has as many as 31,000 fighters. US airstrikes in Syria have killed about 464 ISIS fighters since September, according to The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
It’s unclear how the plan as described would serve to “destroy” and “eradicate” ISIS. As experts have noted since the beginning of the campaign, the elimination of ISIS would require a much stronger commitment.
“If destroying ISIL becomes the near-term policy goal — which seems the likely outcome of saying you are going to ‘roll back’ the group — then 10,000, 15,000 troops vastly understates the true commitment, which will actually require years, direct military action on both sides of the Iraq/Syria border, tens (if not hundreds) of billions of dollars, and many more than 15,000 troops,” counterterrorism expert Brian Fishman said in August.
However, despite the stated goal of the strategy, Obama and US officials are thus far unwilling to put American combat troops in harm’s way in Syria (on top of Iraq).
“Thus far, senior military leaders have concurred in public with Obama’s decision not to send ground combat troops to Syria and Iraq,” Chandrasekaran writes, “but the country’s top military officer, Gen. Martin Dempsey, has said that if he determines that it is necessary for US advisers to accompany local forces on attacks against Islamic State targets, he would make such a recommendation to the president.”
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