President Obama’s top military advisers revealed Thursday that the administration is rethinking whether to deploy combat ground troops in the fight against the Islamic State, as signs emerged that the terrorist group may be setting aside its differences and is working with al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria — the Nusra Front — to attack U.S.-backed rebels in the region.
News of the possible detente between the once bitterly divided factions came Thursday as a new audio recording of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi calling on supporters to “erupt volcanoes of jihad” circulated through the Internet, casting doubt over Iraqi government claims that he was wounded in recent U.S.-led airstrikes.
While intelligence sources would not immediately confirm the authenticity of the recording, the development underscored the seriousness of Republican criticism that the Obama administration’s strategy for fighting the Islamic State has yet to produce measurable gains.
At a House Armed Services Committee hearing on the strategy Thursday, Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, suddenly told lawmakers the administration is considering whether U.S. ground forces may soon be needed to change the calculus of the war against the Islamic State.
Gen. Dempsey said a modest number of U.S. combat troops could be deployed alongside Iraqi forces preparing for certain complex missions — particularly the much-anticipated push to drive Islamic State fighters from the northern Iraqi city of Mosul and restore order to Iraq’s northern and western border with Syria.
The general made the comments after Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, the committee’s chairman, had opened the hearing by criticizing Mr. Obama’s pledge not to allow any U.S. “boots on the ground” in Iraq.
SEE ALSO: Islamic State releases Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi audio: ‘Erupt volcanoes of jihad everywhere’
“How can you successfully execute the mission you’ve been given, to degrade and ultimately destroy [the Islamic State], when some of your best options are taken off the table?” said Mr. McKeon, California Republican.
Gen. Dempsey, who appeared before the committee alongside Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, said he was “not predicting at this point that I would recommend that [Iraqi] forces in Mosul and along the border would need to be accompanied by U.S. forces, but we’re certainly considering it.”
Mr. Hagel, meanwhile, told lawmakers that with the administration’s request to Congress for $5.6 billion to expand the U.S.-led mission against the terrorists, as well as last week’s announcement of a new batch of U.S. troops being deployed to Iraq, there will soon be nearly 3,000 American military personnel on the ground to retrain and provide “support to Iraqi forces.”
Those forces teetered on the brink of collapse in the face of surge by the Islamic State — also known by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL — which seized a vast swath of territory straddling the Iraq-Syria border in June and July.
Mr. Hagel and Gen. Dempsey sought to highlight successes tied to a U.S.-led campaign of airstrikes that have pounded Islamic State targets in both nations since September.
“ISIL’s advance in parts of Iraq has stalled and in some cases been reversed by Iraqi, Kurdish and tribal forces supported by U.S. and coalition airstrikes,” said Mr. Hagel, adding that 12 nations, including several from the Middle East, are now participating in the strikes.
SEE ALSO: U.S. cutting into Islamic State’s revenue stream
But he and Gen. Dempsey acknowledged that U.S. training of Iraqi forces still has a long way to go before a sufficient local ground force can be expected to rout the extremists.
“We’re going to need about 80,000 competent Iraqi security forces to recapture the territory lost, and eventually, the city of Mosul,” said Gen. Dempsey.
Mr. Hagel added that there are particular difficulties in the Islamic State inside Syria, where the U.S.-led airstrikes in recent weeks apparently have benefited Syrian President Bashar Assad. Forces loyal to Mr. Assad have spent the past three years crushing a rebellion while also battling against the Islamic State and the Nusra Front.
Mr. Hagel said Thursday that the Obama administration is “sober about the challenges we face as ISIL exploits the complicated, long-running Syrian conflict.”
“We do not have a partner government to work with in Syria or regular military partners to work with, as we do in Iraq,” the defense secretary said. “In the near term, our military aims in Syria are limited to isolating and destroying ISIL safe havens.”
The challenges seemed to grow more complex Thursday amid reports that the once divided terrorist factions inside Syria may now be banding together.
The Islamic State, known for its brutal campaign of beheadings, had waged war against the Nusra Front over the past year, as the two bitterly fought for domination in the rebellion against Mr. Assad.
The Associated Press reported Thursday that militant leaders from the two groups gathered at a farmhouse in northern Syria last week and agreed on a plan to stop fighting each other and work together against their opponents.
U.S. intelligence sources told The Washington Times on Thursday night that they could not immediately corroborate the AP story, but noted that the Nusra Front and the Islamic State have engaged truces with other rebel groups in the past, so it is plausible the two are now coming together under a wider agreement.
Such an accord could present new difficulties for Washington’s strategy against the Islamic State. While warplanes from a U.S.-led coalition strike militants, the Obama administration has counted on arming the moderate rebel factions to push back the extremists on the ground.
It was not immediately clear what role al-Baghdadi may have played in reaching the accord. The past year saw the terrorist leader call for a separation from the Nusra Front, a move that intelligence sources say drew the ire of Ayman al-Zawahri, the purported leader of al Qaeda’s original core who is thought to be hiding in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region.
According to a report by NBC News on Thursday, the audiotape that circulated of al-Baghdadi claimed the U.S.-led bombing campaign against the Islamic State is failing, with the terrorst leader saying, “America and its allies are terrified, weak and powerless,” and that his group will “never abandon fighting.”
A U.S. official told The Times the recording was being analyzed Thursday night by intelligence officials in Washington. NBC said the message, shared on jihadi websites, appeared to have been recorded recently and included a reference to Egyptian militant group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, which pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi on Monday.
Meanwhile on Thursday, the U.S. military conducted a third airstrike on the Syria-based Jihadist terrorist network known as the Khorasan Group.
U.S. Central Command spokesman Mark Blackington said he “can confirm that U.S. aircraft struck a target in Syria earlier today associated with a network of veteran al Qa’ida operatives, sometimes called the ‘Khorasan Group,’ who are plotting external attacks against the United States and our allies.”
Mr. Blackington declined to provide further details and there was no immediate word on casualties.
To date, the United States has conducted three separate airstrikes on the Khorasan Group since Operation Inherent Resolve spilled into Syria in mid-September. Although dozens of allies are participating in the operation against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, only U.S. aircraft have attacked the group, according to the senior Pentagon official.
The intelligence community has been working hard to conceal the number of Khorasan Group members in Syria, according to the official. “I don’t know why, but they’re very, very sensitive on this one,” the official said. “The guidance is very clear.”
• Maggie Ybarra contributed to this report.