In recent weeks, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has made significant gains in both Iraq and Syria. In Iraq, the Islamic militant group took over the city of Ramadi, a strategically important city and the capital of the Anbar province. ISIS also captured the Syrian city of Palmyra, indicating that its reach in Syria is also growing. This recent success demonstrates that the United States’ strategy against ISIS is not working; the policy needs an entire overhaul. The United States must send in troops to both Iraq and Syria to finally eliminate the ISIS threat.
In September 2014, just a few months after ISIS demonstrated a capacity for cataclysmic violence and established a caliphate over Iraq and Syria, President Barack Obama pledged that the United States would “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS, but the operation would fall short of putting American “boots on the ground.” Since then, the United States has used air strikes targeting ISIS strongholds, along with supporting local proxies (i.e. the Iraqi army), as its main tactics. The Obama administration maintains that the only viable, long-term solution is for the Iraqis and Syrians to fight their own fights. Currently, 3,000 U.S. troops are stationed in Iraq in training and advisory capacities only and President Obama has remained adamant that he will not send U.S. troops into Iraq as combatants.
The United States has generally employed an Iraq-first strategy and that comes at the detriment of Syria, a country still under the rule of a dictator and embroiled in a civil war. U.S. policy in Syria is “constrained by a reluctance to tip the balance of power” toward Syrian President Bashar al Assad, despite President Obama’s statement that the Syrian dictator had to be removed from power. U.S. policy towards Syria is still vague as the Obama administration views the conflict as uncertain and precarious.
Yet, more than four years later since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, Mr. Assad is still in power, wreaking havoc for the United States and its allies across Syria. Many critics have argued that the Syrian president is actually benefiting from the air strikes as they are targeting ISIS and other militant groups in Syria, but not targeting the Assad regime. The U.S. strategy has concentrated so heavily on ISIS and Iraq that it has allowed the Syrian regime to continue its mistreatment of its own citizens, exacerbating the civil war and allowing the regime to “launch attacks elsewhere.” The success ISIS has experienced in Iraq is partly due to the Obama administration’s decision to focus militarily on Iraq and essentially ignore the Syrian situation. Syria continues to serve as a haven for ISIS as the limited U.S. air strikes and principal military concentration on Iraq has “done little to keep ISIS from “consolidating power across Syria.” The United States’ strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS” is simply inefficient as the Obama administration has no plan to “root out the terrorists’ base in Syria,” action that must be taken if the United States is serious about dealing with ISIS.
The United States’ strategy toward ISIS is in serious need of a complete re-evaluation. It is apparent that the current strategy of providing only air support and military advisors is not sufficient. Some administration officials are, rightfully so, beginning to rethink the “Iraq first” strategy and focus more military attention on Syria. There are significant divisions within the U.S. government on how to best proceed. Many Republicans, including Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, believe that it is time to send in more troops: “The only way I know to defend this nation is for some of our soldiers to go back and partner with the Iraqis to stop ISIL before it’s too late.” Democrats, on the other hand, mainly resist the idea for U.S. troops to be sent back to Iraq. Dick Durbin, a Democrat Senator from Illinois, illustrated this point when he stated, “If the Iraqis are not willing to fight for their own nation, if the Iraqi army will not stand and fight despite our support and all our training, it’s really tough to argue, though some have, that the United States should be sending in troops to invade.” As the debate centers mainly on the fight against ISIS in Iraq, some within the U.S. government recognize that stopping the violence perpetuated by ISIS in Iraq depends on destroying their base and progress in Syria.
Max Boot stated that the “present minimalist strategy has scant chance of success and risks backfiring.” ISIS’s capture of Ramadi and Palmyra forces the Obama administration to consider these crucial questions: Where should the United States focus its efforts in Iraq? Should it concentrate on retaking Mosul or Ramadi? How should the United States approach ISIS’ presence in Syria where the militant group is facing little to no pressure? How much of a threat is Bashar al Assad and should he be deposed? What would the implications be for Syria if Assad was removed from power? Most fundamentally, should the United States and its allies prepare to send in troops to Iraq, Syria, or both? What is clear is that the United States must reconsider its current strategy in Iraq and must also include Syria, including the removal of President Assad, in its plan to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS. As for sending in U.S. ground forces to attack ISIS, the answer is yes: the United States must send in troops to fight ISIS. This includes stationing troops in Iraq as well as Syria because the United States cannot fully “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS without identifying the both sources of its success. Overall, it is strategically necessary that the U.S. send ground troops to defeat the ISIS threat decisively.