- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Pentagon on Wednesday made the sobering prediction that more towns in Syria and Iraq will fall to the Islamic State in the coming weeks, and that air power alone is not going to be enough to prevent the fall of the Syrian city of Kobani near the Turkish border.

It also raised the prospect of Islamic State terrorists marching on Baghdad, a fear that lawmakers and former top military officials say can only be addressed by ground forces.

“We know that [the Islamic State] is going to continue to grab ground, and there are going to continue to be villages and towns and cities that they take,” said Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, press secretary to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. “We all have to recognize that reality.”

Speaking specifically about cities in western Iraq, he said, “There are places where [the Islamic State] continues to make gains in Iraq. We talked about Hit. We talked about Ramadi. We talked about Fallujah, which is still in contention right now. That’s worrisome, because it’s close to Baghdad.”

The assessment came before President Obama met with his top military officers and National Security Council at the Pentagon. Mr. Obama emerged to tout his confidence in the progress that coalition efforts are making. He made no note of increasing calls for sending U.S. ground forces, and instead addressed the need to better train and arm Syrian opposition groups that the U.S. hopes will fight the terrorists on the ground.

“This is not something that can be solved overnight,” Mr. Obama said. “Our strikes continue, alongside our partners.”

On Wednesday, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee said the president’s war strategy in Iraq is failing.

Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, California Republican, said Mr. Obama needs to consider new options — including American ground troops — for the air war-only strategy.

“Evidence is mounting that an ‘Iraq first’ approach focused on airstrikes isn’t degrading ISIL,” said Mr. McKeon, using one of the Islamic State’s acronyms, which is also known as ISIS. “From Kobani to Baghdad, they are using their Syrian sanctuary to make gains. The president needs to adopt a broader strategy if we are to protect our interests. He needs to walk out of the Pentagon willing to put new options on the table rather than continuing to rule them out.”

For more than a month, Mr. McKeon has advocated putting a relatively small number of U.S. ground troops into the battle to aid the beleaguered Iraqi Security Forces. Iraqi troops retreated en masse in June when the Islamic State invaded from Syria and gobbled up terrain.

The Washington Times reported Monday that the Islamic State today holds about the same number of towns in Iraq as it did two months ago, when the U.S. began a bombing campaign to whittle down the terrorist army and support Iraqi ground troops trying to retake territory.

More troubling, analysts say, is that the Islamic State apparently is preparing operations designed to one day invade Baghdad.

Its objective is to take the international airport and begin conquering the capital, section by section. The Islamic State is continuing its urban attacks with car bombs, some of which have been detonated by foreign suicide bombers.

Much press coverage on the war has focused in recent days on Kobani, where Kurdish fighters are in fierce street battles with Islamic State fighters as U.S. planes drop a smattering of bombs.

“We don’t have a willing, capable, effective partner on the ground inside Syria on the ground,” said Adm. Kirby. “It’s just a fact. I can’t change that.”

The U.S. strategy for “degrading and ultimately destroy[ing]” the Islamic State hinges on forming a new 5,000-strong Syrian fighting force in Saudi Arabia and then inserting it next spring inside Syria to fight the terrorist army. The Obama administration hopes this force, and continued airstrikes, will then evict the Islamic State town by town.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest echoed the Pentagon’s warning on Kobani — from where more than 160,000 Syrians have fled — and other towns.

“That will limit the effectiveness of the United States military on the situation in Kobani,” Mr. Earnest said. “That sort of ground operation doesn’t currently exist in Syria right now. We should just be forthright about the limitations in this particular situation.”

The president has vowed not to send U.S. combat ground troops into the fight against the Islamic State.

On Wednesday, U.S. airstrikes appeared to slow the Islamic State’s advance on Kobani, where Kurdish fighters have held off the militants during a three-week siege.

With the Islamic State closing in on the border, Turkey — a NATO ally — has refused to engage in combat against the militants, saying it needs assurances that the U.S.-led coalition of Western and Arab nations is committed to a long-term struggle. Turkey has fought off a Kurdish insurgency in southern regions since the 1980s.

On Thursday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, as well as Mr. Obama’s two envoys to the anti-Islamic State coalition — retired Gen. John Allen and Ambassador Brett McGurk — arrive for talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to push for greater Turkish action, The Associated Press reported.

Meanwhile, the Islamic State is not just advancing in Syria. After two months of U.S. bombing, the Sunni extremist army still holds as many, or more, towns than it did on Aug. 8.

Last week, it claimed a new city, Hit, in Iraq’s western Anbar province, a Sunni stronghold and gateway for possible attacks on the international airport and Baghdad.

The Obama administration is playing a waiting game. It has inserted special operations forces, not to fight but to help reorganize and train the reborn Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). As of now, it has not mounted anything close to a concerted counteroffensive.

Retired Army Lt. Gen. James Dubik, who led the effort to train and expand the ISF during the 2007 troop surge, said Iraq must go on the offensive soon.

“The longer we wait to get the ISF going on the ground portion of the counteroffensive, the more ISIS will adapt to air attack and find ways to keep the ISF occupied, and the harder it will be, psychologically, to get the ISF to transition to the offensive,” said Mr. Dubik, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. “Time is not on our side.”

He said the first phase can have “modest objectives,” such as targeting Islamic State leaders and taking back a few small towns.

“The ISF need a few important enough wins to move their psychology from ‘we’re under siege’ to ‘we’re on the move,’” he said.

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