In their first public briefing since President Barack Obama laid out his new strategy for defeating the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the nation’s two top defense officials on Tuesday provided few details of their plans and no guarantees of success.
Instead, in response to questions from members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, laid out a litany of likely obstacles to the president’s plan that were daunting in their breadth.
There is no guarantee that Iraqi military forces can be reconstituted to become an effective force against the Islamic State, they said. There’s no certainty a U.S.-trained Syrian force will choose to fight the Islamic State ahead of the government of President Bashar Assad, they said.
Indeed, the chances of success are far less in Syria than in Iraq, Dempsey said, as Hagel nodded agreement. “Five thousand alone is not going to be able to turn the tide,” Hagel said, referring to the number of Syrian rebels likely to be trained under a proposed U.S. program.
Even the pledge that no American soldiers would engage in ground combat operations seemed tenuous. Dempsey said he could foresee circumstances where American advisers would join Iraqi troops, for example, if the Iraqis tried to recapture Mosul, in what he called “close combat advising.”
“If we reach the point where I believe our advisers should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific targets, I will recommend that to the president,” Dempsey told the committee.
The appearance by Dempsey and Hagel came as the U.S. Central Command announced for the second day in a row that U.S. aircraft had conducted offensive strikes under Obama’s new authorization against Islamic State targets southwest of Baghdad. The aircraft conducted three strikes against a truck, an anti-aircraft artillery piece, “a small ISIL ground unit” and “two small boats on the Euphrates River that were resupplying ISIL forces in the area,” the statement said, using the acronym for the group that the government prefers.
The Central Command said only that the strikes were in support of Iraqi security forces, but it did not say where precisely the fighting was taking place, though the area southwest of Baghdad is a largely Sunni area where extremist militants have been active for years.
In their testimony, Hagel and Dempsey sought to brace the nation for a long war with an uncertain duration and outcome, repeatedly telling senators that they would make adjustments to the strategy as necessary.
Both struggled to define what degrading and destroying the Islamic State would look like. At one point, Dempsey suggested that it might be as simple as depriving the Islamic State forces of their current ability to move back and forth across the Syrian and Iraqi dividing line. “Restore the border and then they are defeated,” he said.
They also were at pains to explain whether the Islamic State presented an imminent threat to the United States. “Although the intelligence community has not yet detected specific plotting against the U.S. homeland, ISIL has global aspirations,” Hagel said. “If left unchecked, ISIL will directly threaten our homeland and our allies.”
Hagel cited two events as sparking the new U.S. strategy _ the formation of a new Iraqi government to replace the one led by divisive Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and the beheading of two American journalists _ James Foley and Steven Sotloff _ by ISIS forces in Syria in August.
Neither offered an apology for failing to save Foley and Sotloff. Both defended the U.S. policy of not paying ransom to terrorist groups for the safe return of American hostages, and Dempsey said he believed the parents of Foley and Sotloff should feel gratitude for the failed rescue mission the United States launched July 3 in an attempt to rescue them. U.S. forces found the Islamic State facility they raided empty.
“That was the most complex, highest risk mission we’ve ever undertaken,” Dempsey said. “And that should give the family some solace and you some (confidence) that as a military, we are focused on this,” Dempsey said in response to a question from Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat who represents New Hampshire, Foley’s home state.
Dempsey said there were three major threats to the strategy’s success: An Iraqi government that excludes the country’s Sunni minority, prompting it to turn to the Islamic State, as many Sunnis already have; Arab allies that don’t have endurance for what promises to be a long war; and Islamic State retaliation against Arab states that join the U.S. effort.
The Obama administration has sought $500 million in funding for the U.S. military to train 5,000 Syrian rebels to fight against Islamic State forces. But several senators were skeptical of such an effort, noting that the force would be up against an Islamic State force that the CIA now estimates numbers 31,000 fighters.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., long a critic of Obama policy toward Syria, said U.S. officials’ hopes that rebel forces would fight the Islamic State before the Assad regime marked a “fundamental misunderstanding” of rebel goals. Whatever differences such moderate fighters have with the Islamic State, he said, both groups share the goal of bringing down the regime.
If the U.S. tells fighters to confront the Islamic State first, “you are not going to get many recruits, General,” McCain told Dempsey.
Some senators said they remain doubtful that such a small force could defeat a terrorist group operating as a quasi army.
“I can’t sell it” to my constituents, said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.