The fight against the Islamic State isn’t going well.
Militants took over the Iraqi provincial capital Ramadi over the weekend, overran the ancient Syrian town Palmyra on Wednesday, and moved into former dictator Moammar Gaddafi’s hometown in Libya on Thursday.
And now the US is facing a conundrum on how to handle the recent advances of the Islamic State terror group (also known as ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh).
Yaroslav Trofimov wrote in The Wall Street Journal that the US now has three options in the fight against ISIS: carry on with what they’re already doing, escalate the fight, or give up. And none of those options are appealing.
“To be frank, you don’t have a hell of a lot of options,” former senior defence official Anthony Cordesman, who now works for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told WSJ.
President Barack Obama doesn’t want to commit ground troops to the fight, but supporting the strongest fighting force in Iraq, the Shia militias supported by Iran, comes with its own set of problems.
Shia militias like the Badr Organisation killed American troops in Iraq during the occupation, and experts say that allowing them to run the fight against ISIS in Sunni areas like Ramadi will only worsen sectarian tensions there.
On the other hand, the US can’t let the Iraqi army fight on its own — the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad has been reluctant to give Sunnis too many resources out of fear that it might one day turn on the government, and troops fled Ramadi when ISIS mounted a big offensive on the city, detonating dozens of car bombs that crippled the army’s ranks.
So far the US has gone with an in-between strategy, focusing on air strikes to take out ISIS targets, but that hasn’t been enough.
Cordesman told the Journal: “This current version of train and assist is sort of like trying to be half-pregnant. It just doesn’t work. We are not embedded with the command elements. We do not have people who can provide direct combat advice, who can warn when people are not getting the reinforcements and supplies they need. And to do that you have to be willing to take casualties.”
Obama met with top national security advisers on Tuesday to discuss how to move forward after the fall of Ramadi.
A senior fellow at the Center for American Progress told the Journal that Obama is unlikely to be willing to get any deeper into conflicts in Iraq since he was elected to get the US out of them.
But refusing to escalate in Iraq could mean we’d have to “cede the entire mentoring and advising piece to the Iranians,” retired U.S. Navy Adm. James Stavridis told the Journal. “We will not be able to get this done from the air and by sitting on bases.”
Other experts say that empowering Sunnis to defend their cities and towns is the best way forward, but that’s unlikely to happen without the support of the Baghdad government.
In the end, the US seems to be increasingly turning toward the Shia militias to handle the ground fight.
A Pentagon spokesman said on Monday that “the militias have a part to play in this” and that “as long as they are controlled by the central Iraqi government, then they will participate” in fighting ISIS militants, according to The Daily Beast.
The problem with that route is that many of the most powerful militias are decidedly controlled by Iran.