The Syrian city of Raqqa, the Islamic State’s heart and soul for unleashing global terrorism, will stay that way for the foreseeable future.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs testified Wednesday that there are no plans for an allied ground assault and that indigenous Arab forces are not ready to take on a terrorist army estimated at 30,000-strong.
Mr. Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee that even if President Obama signed on to an invasion, U.S. allies show little interest in contributing troops.
His former Army chief, retired Gen. Raymond Odierno, said Wednesday that the only way to defeat the Islamic State is to inject a ground force of 2,000 or so troops.
The U.S. airstrike campaign is leaving the lights on in Raqqa to avoid depriving its citizens of electricity and other services, Mr. Carter said.
This means the Islamic State’s bureaucracy has plenty of energy to power its various broadcast and social media dispatches to recruit more fighters and inspire attacks aboard, such as in Europe and the United States.
“There is no plan, no strategy to retake Raqqa,” said Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and committee chairman.
Since Mr. Carter last appeared before the Armed Services Committee in October, the Islamic State has displayed new vigor. It used hidden explosives to bring down a Russian airliner over the Sinai, sent suicide bombers into a Beirut suburb and directed a mass murder in Paris.
And the Muslim married couple who killed 14 innocents in San Bernardino, California, last week were inspired in part by the Islamic State, FBI Director James B. Comey testified Wednesday at another Senate hearing.
On the issue of what the U.S. knows about military strength inside Raqqa, Air Force Gen. Paul J. Selva, the Joint Chiefs vice chairman, said, “I can’t talk specifically about Raqqa because we don’t have that kind of intelligence on Raqqa.”
Mr. Obama made it clear again in a Sunday night speech to the nation that he has no intention of putting a ground force into Iraq and Syria to battle the Islamic State, also known as ISIL and ISIS.
The U.S. has begun arming and advising Syrian Arab militias. It has identified 20 leaders overseeing 1,600 fighters who have made progress taking three towns in eastern Syria.
But when it comes to Raqqa, Gen. Selva said: “The forces that we are aware of at this point are the Syrian democratic forces that are working with Kurdish partners that are willing to put pressure on Raqqa. It’s not clear that that force is large enough to be the hold force and the security force that would follow.”
Mr. McCain and other hawkish committee members focused on what they consider a gap in Mr. Obama’s strategy: leaving Raqqa in the hands of the Islamic State indefinitely until Syrian rebels are able to take it with the help of U.S. air power.
“We will not destroy ISIL until Raqqa, the capital of the caliphate, falls,” Mr. McCain said. “But there’s still no ground force that is both willing and able to retake Raqqa, nor is there a realistic prospect of one emerging soon.”
He said the only way to cleanse Raqqa is to assemble a force of Arab and European troops with the U.S.
“I urgently and fervently ask you for a strategy that you can tell us when we are going to take Mosul, when we are going to take Raqqa and when we are going to wipe out this caliphate,” the Republican senator said, referring to Iraq’s second-largest city. “And, frankly, I have not seen that.”
Mr. Carter stuck to his position that local Arabs, with coalition air power and special operations forces, need to be the ones who capture and secure Raqqa. If Americans and Europeans do it, he said, it will be used as a rally call for more Muslims to join the Islamic State.
“It wouldn’t be appropriate for us to attack largely Arab Raqqa — that they and their success will build, so to speak, a snowball that accumulates more fighters as they go,” the defense chief said.
On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Gen. Odierno said Wednesday that “you can’t defeat ISIS or destroy ISIS without having people on the ground. So you might have to put [together] some conventional force. But I’m not talking 20 [thousand], 30 [thousand], 40,000. I’m in the 1-to-2,000 range to get done, at least initially, what we have to do.”
Mr. Carter disclosed he is having trouble keeping the coalition fixed on the Islamic State. Saudi Arabia, for example, is preoccupied with its intervention in neighboring Yemen, where Iran-backed Shiite rebels have toppled the U.S.-supported government.
To underscore the urgency, Mr. Carter said that in the past week he personally has contacted 40 nations to encourage them to do more.
“The types of things I’ve requested from our partners include special operations forces, strike and reconnaissance aircraft and weapons and munitions,” he said.
He added, “We all — let me repeat that — we all must do more.”
In Iraq, there are also setbacks.
The Shiite-run government in Baghdad has publicly pledged to arm Sunni forces there, yet tribal chiefs say the help has barely materialized.
“While we are focused on making additional tactical gains, the overall progress in the Sunni-populated areas of Iraq has been slow, much to our and Prime Minister [Haider al-] Abadi’s frustration,” Mr. Carter said.
“Indeed, with respect to Sunni tribal forces, we would like to see the government do more to recruit, train, arm and mobilize Sunni popular mobilization fighters in their communities. We continue to engage the Iraqi government at all levels to move forward on this critically important aspect of the counter-ISIL campaign,” he added.
Mr. McCain ended the hearing with an impassioned denunciation of Mr. Obama’s war strategy. The senator said that the president has opposed not only sending U.S. ground troops but also establishing a no-fly zone to keep the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad from killing thousands of his people over the past four years.
“Where is our moral — where is the tradition of the United States of America?” he said. “We went to Bosnia after they ethnically cleansed 8,000 people. This guy has killed 240,000, and yet it’s too hard for the most powerful nation on Earth to set up a no-fly zone.”