McCain: Get Ready for U.S. Troops on the Ground in Iraq and Syria
Policy + Politics

McCain: Get Ready for U.S. Troops on the Ground in Iraq and Syria

REUTERS/Joshua Lett

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) did not mince words during their joint- appearance on 60 Minutes Sunday night in berating President Obama’s strategy for defeating ISIS and other terrorist threats in the Middle East. 

In a bruising assessment of Obama’s State of the Union address last Tuesday, Boehner complained to CBS’s Scott Pelley, “The president didn’t spend but a few seconds talking about the terrorist threat that we as Americans face. This problem is growing all over the world, and the president is trying to act like it’s not there. It’s going to be a threat to our homeland if we don’t address it in a bigger way,” he added, pointing to the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and elsewhere.

Related: Republicans Rip Obama for Misleading Americans on ISIS    

McConnell seconded Boehner’s contention that the U.S. and its allies will ultimately fail unless they break out of the current Obama approach – which amounts to strategic air strikes against ISIS forces in Iraq and Syria and efforts to recruit and train friendly “moderate” rebels in Syria to take the fight directly to ISIS forces on the ground. The U.S. currently has about 2,300 troops in Iraq, but they are primarily providing security and advice to the Iraqi government while staying far away from the fighting. 

Obama has vowed repeatedly that he will not send in more U.S. ground troops to engage ISIS on the battlefield. GOP leaders say that is a misguided approach that will simply embolden the jihadist terrorists to persist in their rampage and killing across a major swath of Iraq and civil war-torn Syria in a drive to establish a new Islamic Caliphate. 

“As John indicated, it will require boots on the ground,” McConnell said. “The question is whose boots? I think it’d be very foolish mistake for us to say in advance what we won’t do. Nobody’s advocating a use of American ground troops there at this point. But why in the world would we want to send a message to our enemies what we will or won’t do in the future?”   

Related: The New U.S. Price Tag for the War Against ISIS: $40 Billion a Year   

Few question that the U.S. effort to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS got off to a rocky start, and the president has cautioned that it may take years for the U.S. and its dozens of allies to achieve their goal. More recently, however, the U.S. military has made some important gains by altering its tactics to first support Iraqi efforts to dislodge ISIS from strongholds in western and northern Iraq, while using air strikes as a holding action in Syria. 

The new strategy seems to be paying off as Iraqi forces with U.S. and allied backing have retaken much of the territory ISIS had seized in Iraq. The Fiscal Times reported last week that ISIS suffered serious setbacks and lost its momentum in Iraq since the start of the U.S. air campaign last year. U.S. diplomatic officials said last week that the allied effort has now killed more than 6,000 ISIS fighters – including half of the top command. 

Separately, Kurdish Peshmerga forces are making progress against ISIS in Kobani, near the Turkish border in Syria. Reports range from 70 to 90 percent in the hands of the Kurds, supported by allied airstrikes. 

Still, ISIS controls the provincial capitals Mosul and Tikrit in Iraq as well as the city of Fallujah west of Baghdad. And GOP leaders are highly skeptical that the overall U.S. approach will be adequate to drive out or destroy ISIS forces, as they continue to attract new fighters from around the globe. 

Until recently, Republicans have offered only sketch indications of how they would prosecute the war if they were in charge. That has begun to change, as Senate Armed Services Committee Chair John McCain – the chief spokesperson for the Republicans on military affairs and strategy – has aired his ideas in a series of interviews and television interviews. 

Related: The War Against ISIS Will Explode Our Nation’s Debt 

In an appearance last weekend on the CBS News program Face the Nation, McCain offered  a blistering critique of Obama’s handling of the crises in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere, saying the president and his top advisers have “lost touch with reality” – including the role being played by Iran in fomenting  terrorism throughout the Middle East. 

“So there is no strategy,” he said. “It is delusional for them to think that what they're doing is succeeding. And we need more boots on the ground. I know that is a tough thing to say and a tough thing for Americans to swallow, but it doesn't mean the 82nd Airborne. It means forward air controllers. It means Special Forces. It means intelligence and it means other capabilities.

McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, was a major supporter of President George W. Bush’s troop surge during the first U.S. war in Iraq. He contends that Obama’s withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011 created a power vacuum that paved the way for Islamic State militants to take over much of the country in 2014.

Related: How the U.S. Allowed ISIS to Form a Terrorist Army

The three key components of McCain’s approach are these: 

  1. Expand the U.S. force in Iraq from the current 2,300 troops to 10,000 to assist Iraqis troops. Rather than keeping U.S. service members confined to bases and headquarters, many of them would be dispatched to the front lines to direct or call in air strikes and take other steps to assist the Iraqis.
  2. Establish safe zones or no-fly zones in neighboring Syria. McCain initially was reacting to news reports last year that ISIS was attempting to assemble a modest air force with pilots trained by Iraqi military defectors. While that threat has yet to materialize, McCain and administration officials have considered establishing a Syrian no-fly zone to protect civilians from airstrikes by the Syrian government.
  3. Expand aid and military assistance to moderate Syrian rebels to help them fight back against ISIS and Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. AsThe Washington Post noted, Assad appears to be buoyed by months of U.S. and allied air strikes against ISIS that have taken enormous pressure off of him while he continues to destroy rebel forces seeking to topple him.

McCain said it’s an outrage that the Obama administration has pulled back and is no longer insisting that Assad step aside, although his regime is responsible for the deaths of over 200,000 Syrian civilians.

“In the Middle East, we have got to have boots on the ground,” McCain said over the weekend. “We have got to have training capability. We can't train young people in Syria and send them back into Syria to be barrel-bombed by Bashar Assad. That is also immoral.”

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