WASHINGTON — The Islamic State group cannot be defeated unless the United States or its allies take on the Sunni militancy in Syria, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said Thursday afternoon.
“This is an organization that has an apocalyptic end-of-days strategic vision that will eventually have to be defeated,” the chairman, Gen. Martin Dempsey, said in his most expansive public remarks on the crisis since U.S. airstrikes began in Iraq. “Can they be defeated without addressing that part of the organization that resides in Syria? The answer is no.”
But both Gen. Dempsey and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who appeared beside him during a Pentagon news conference, deflected questions about whether the U.S. military would pursue the Sunni militants from Iraq into Syria, an issue that many defense experts say lies at the heart any attempt to defeat Islamic State.
Pressed about whether the United States would attempt airstrikes on Islamic State targets in Syria, Mr. Hagel said, “We’re looking at all options.” And Gen. Dempsey said U.S. allies in the region must play a role as well.
Earlier in the day, the Pentagon announced that U.S. warplanes had conducted six more strikes on Islamic State targets in the vicinity of the Mosul Dam in Iraq, destroying three Humvees, another vehicle and several roadside bomb emplacements. Islamic State fighters are a highly mobile force that may number as many as 17,000 men and can move across the Iraq-Syria border with impunity, according to U.S. military and civilian officials.
The attacks brought to 90 the number of airstrikes conducted by the fighter jets, drones and bombers that the United States has unleashed on the Sunni militants since President Barack Obama authorized the strikes as part of the battle against the Islamic State. Since the United States began operations Aug. 8, 57 of the 90 airstrikes by bombers, fighters and drones have been to support Iraqi and Kurdish forces near the Mosul Dam.
There have been 20 attacks since the militants beheaded an American journalist and threatened to behead others if the United States did not stop the airstrikes. Mr. Obama has harshly condemned the slaying, and Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement declaring that the group “must be destroyed.”
Thus far, though, Mr. Obama’s military strategy is aimed at containing the Islamic State rather than defeating it, according to Defense Department officials and military experts. Wary of expanding the U.S. military campaign in Iraq, the administration has balked at committing more extensive air power as part of a strategy that could decisively roll back the Islamic State. The abilities of the Iraqi and Kurdish forces facing Islamic State fighters remain limited, and similar shortfalls are seen in the moderate Syrian opposition facing the militant group across the border.
Some U.S. experts believe that it will be impossible to deliver a decisive blow against the militant group without attacking its operations in Syria. U.S. officials said the United States was conducting reconnaissance over Syria, but attacks by drones or manned strike aircraft on Islamic State positions in Syria had not been ordered. The president sent a Special Operations team into Syria last month in a vain effort to rescue hostages held by the Islamic State.
“You can hit” the Islamic State “on one side of a border that essentially no longer exists, and it will scurry across, as it may have already,” said Brian Katulis, a national security expert with the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank with close ties to the White House.
Another step that some experts say will be needed to challenge the militant groups is a stepped-up program to train, advise and equip the moderate opposition in Syria, as well as Kurdish and government forces in Iraq.
As proved during the initial U.S. military mission to rout al-Qaida and the Taliban from Afghanistan after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. airstrikes would be more effective if small teams of Special Operations Forces were deployed to identify Islamic State targets and call in attacks. Deploying such teams is believed to be one option the Pentagon is considering. But no teams have been deployed.
The United States has used the strikes in part to protect Irbil, the capital of the Kurdistan’s regional government, where the United States has a consulate. And it has used air power to help Kurdish peshmerga fighters and soldiers from the Iraqi government’s counterterrorism service retake the Mosul Dam. U.S. airstrikes have also been used to try to protect the thousands of desperate Yazidi civilians who were airlifted to safety from the sanctuary they sought on Mount Sinjar.
U.S. officials said the Islamic State might have been planning to send several thousand reinforcements to the Mosul Dam, but it did not happen. It appears that the group had hoped to send technicians to the dam to keep it running and keep generating electricity for Mosul, but they could not find the experts necessary to do that before they lost control of the dam.
As the news releases from the U.S. Central Command have made clear, the Islamic State has also been using captured U.S. equipment, including Humvees and at least one MRAP, or mine resistant, ambush-protected vehicle. To the military’s consternation, U.S. intelligence officials have reported that it seized 20 T-55 Russian tanks in Syria, armor that Islamic State could employ in Iraq.
According to a U.S. intelligence estimate, the Islamic State could not be easily defeated by killing its top leadership. Given its decentralized command and control, experienced militants could easily replenish its upper ranks, U.S. officials said. U.S. officials caution that intelligence experts are still in the process of assessing the Islamic State’s strength, and that pinning down the precise number of its fighters is difficult in part because it is not easy to identify who is a core member of the group, and who might be sympathizers fighting alongside them.
A senior U.S. official said the Pentagon now estimated the number of fighters affiliated with the Islamic State to be about 17,000. That figure includes an initial vanguard of about 3,000 who swept into Mosul from Syria in early June, Islamic State reinforcements from Syria since that time, as well as thousands of new foreign fighter recruits and thousands of Iraqi Sunnis — including Baathists, tribesmen and common criminals — who at least for now are allied with Islamic State. The combined number of Islamic State and affiliated fighters has grown by several thousand, perhaps nearly doubling, since June.syria - United States - North America - United States military - United States government - Middle East - Barack Obama - District of Columbia - Chuck Hagel - U.S. Department of Defense - Iraq - John Kerry - Martin Dempsey