- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 12, 2014

As elements of the Islamic State appeared to be advancing in key parts of Iraq and Syria, the Obama administration defended its plan to combat the terrorist group amid criticism from lawmakers calling for a more aggressive approach both from the U.S. and its international partners in the mission.

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, said the U.S. approach of targeted airstrikes is fundamentally flawed for any operation involving the Syrian border town of Kobani, which was facing a steady advance of Islamic State fighters over the weekend.

“In Kobani, there’s no way you can orchestrate air support in that kind of urban fighting. ISIS has adjusted to these airstrikes,” Mr. McCain said on CNN’s “State of the Union,” using an acronym for the terrorist organization. “There has to be … a re-evaluation and a re-engineering of what we’re doing, because it’s not working.”

National Security Adviser Susan E. Rice said progress has been made in the long-term goal of dismantling and degrading the terrorist group, saying building up the capacity of the Iraqi army and the air campaign is off to a “strong start.”

“So it can’t be judged by merely what happens in one particular town or in one particular region,” she said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “This is going to take time. And the American people need to understand that our aim here is a long-term degradation and building the capacity of our partners.”

Mr. McCain, though, called for more “boots on the ground” in the form of forward air controllers, special forces, arming Kurdish forces battling the group, also known as ISIL, and instituting a no-fly zone for regions in Syria.

Even as the Obama administration has continuously ruled out the possibility of sending in ground troops in a combat role, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on ABC’s “This Week” he could envision circumstances in which U.S. ground troops would aid the mission.

“There will be circumstances where the answer to that question will likely be yes, but I haven’t encountered one right now,” Gen. Dempsey said.

However, Ms. Rice said almost the opposite, and came close to ruling out American ground forces under any circumstances, saying the White House’s entire strategy doesn’t require American ground troops in combat again, and the mission would not even benefit from that scenario.

“We’ll do our part from the air and, in many other respects, in terms of building up the capacity of the Iraqis in the Syrian opposition, the moderates,” Ms. Rice said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“But we are not going to be in a ground war again in Iraq,” she emphasized. “It’s not what is required by the circumstances that we face. And even if one were to take that step, which the president has made clear we are not going to do, it wouldn’t be sustainable. We [have] got to do this in a sustainable way.”

Ms. Rice also said the concept of a buffer or no-fly zone is something Turkish officials have been interested in for almost three years and that the administration doesn’t see it as essential to the underlying goal of degrading Islamic State forces, though they continue to talk with Turkey about the possibility.

Gen. Dempsey said he has not yet been asked to set up a no-fly zone, but also wouldn’t rule out the possibility.

“Do I anticipate that there could be circumstances in the future where that would be a part of the campaign? Yeah,” he said on ABC.

According to Associated Press reporters in Turkey, a government official confirmed on condition of anonymity that Ankara has agreed with the U.S. to train 4,000 Syrian opposition fighters vetted by Turkish intelligence. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.

Also Sunday, U.S. officials confirmed that Turkey agreed to let U.S. and coalition fighter aircraft launch operations against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria from Turkish bases, including Incirlik Air Base in the south.

Turkey cooperated with the first U.S.-led war against Iraq, the drive to reverse Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, but did not allow its bases to be used in the 2003 invasion.

Still, Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont Independent, also said the United States must not continue to send signals that it’s a strictly Western mission against the group.

“The question that we have got to ask is why are the nations in the region not more actively involved. Why don’t they see this as a crisis situation?” he said on “State of the Union.” “If the Middle East people perceive this is the United States versus ISIS, the West versus East, Christianity versus Islam, we’re going to lose that war. This is a war for the soul of Islam, and the Muslim nations must be deeply involved.”

In Iraq’s Anbar province, though, a top provincial official actually called for U.S. ground troops to be deployed in the region over the weekend to help combat the group.

Anbar Provincial Council president Sabah Al-Karhout told reporters that the Islamic State controls about 80 percent of his province, and reports from the ground at the weekend suggest it has encircled Haditha, the province’s biggest city that it doesn’t yet control.

According to Mr. Al-Karhout, Iraqi army and provincial militias have said they would abandon their weapons if the U.S. military does not intervene with ground forces.

However, the central government in Baghdad has said it does not want such forces, a point Ms. Rice reiterated on Sunday’s talk shows. And a spokesman for the Iraqi prime minister’s office told CNN on Sunday that it had not received any request from Anbar for U.S. ground forces.

The province was the center of the Anbar Awakening in 2007 and 2008, the strategy pursued under the leadership of Gen. David H. Petraeus and the aid of President Bush’s troop surge.

Instead of fighting traditionalist Sunni clan and tribal leaders, the U.S. made a tacit alliance at the time with them against al Qaeda in Iraq, which, though Sunni, imposed a literal or “pure” version of Shariah law based on modern Salafist and Wahhabist ideas. AQI’s gaining power thus undermined traditional forms of authority in the conservative society, and the Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot, would presumably do the same.

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