National Security

U.S. combat role in Iraq not off table, Gen. Dempsey says

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, accompanied by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, brief reporters about ongoing operations against Islamic extremists in Syria and Iraq during a news conference at the Pentagon, Friday, Sept. 26, 2014. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, accompanied by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, brief reporters about ongoing operations against Islamic extremists in Syria and Iraq during a news conference at the Pentagon, Friday, Sept. 26, 2014. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) AP

The nation’s top military commander refused Friday to back off his controversial stance in Senate testimony that he would recommend committing U.S. troops to combat in Iraq if he believed they were needed to help defeat Islamic State militants.

The steadfastness of Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, revealed a potential gap between President Barack Obama’s senior military and political advisers over whether there might once more be American “boots on the ground” in Iraq three years after the last American combat troops left.

In another sign of the expanding American mission in the region, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the first U.S. military personnel had arrived in Saudi Arabia to lay the groundwork for training 5,000 “moderate” Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State.

Congress last week authorized the training mission but still must consider an administration request for $500 million for the program. The authorization came after Obama said he would expand the U.S. air campaign against the Islamic State from Iraq into Syria, a step that occurred this week with air assaults on 22 locations in Syria.

“In Syria, there has been no coordination, nor will there be, with the Assad regime,” Hagel said Friday. “Nothing has changed about our position, (nothing) that has shifted our approach to Assad and his regime, because this regime, President Assad, has lost all legitimacy to govern.”

France has joined U.S. bombing raids in Iraq, and five Arab countries – Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates – participated in airstrikes over Syria.

The British Parliament voted overwhelmingly Friday to join the Iraq raids, though it opposed taking part in airstrikes in Syria.

Hagel said Friday that the governments of Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands have agreed to engage in the Iraq bombing raids as well.

Dempsey, meanwhile, was pressed by reporters several times on whether he stood by his statement that U.S. combat troops might become necessary in Iraq.

“If you’re asking me would I provide my best military advice at all times, the answer if absolutely,” Dempsey told one journalist. “If you’re suggesting that I might, at some point, recommend that we need a large ground force to counter (the Islamic State), the answer to that is also absolutely.”

Dempsey quickly added: “But it doesn’t have to be Americans.” He added that the “ideal force” would be one “comprised of Iraqis and Kurds and moderate Syrian opposition.”

Hagel, attending the same briefing, jumped in to say that the president of the United States “expects . . . the absolute most direct and honest military advice that Gen. Dempsey and other military leaders can give him.”

At a Sept. 16 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Dempsey said, “If we reach the point where I believe our advisers should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific targets, I’ll recommend that to the president.”

In subsequent days, senior Obama aides walked back from that possibility. Obama made withdrawing from Iraq a rallying cry of his 2008 presidential campaign, and he trumpeted the departure of the last U.S. combat troops in late 2011.

Since July, however, following Islamic State fighters’ brisk and brutal sweep across a large swath of Iraq, Obama has sent nearly 1,200 troops there with the ostensible mission to “advise and assist” embattled Iraqi security forces.

Obama said Sept. 10 that he would dispatch another 475 Americans to Iraq, and Hagel this week deployed the first wave of those – 216 officers and soldiers from the Fort Riley, Kan., headquarters of the 1st Infantry Division, the highest-level military unit sent back to Iraq so far. They will help run U.S.-Iraqi Joint Operation Centers in Baghdad and Irbil, capital of the country’s Kurdish region in the north.

“They’re a coherent, standing war-fighting organization that understands how to integrate these multiple activities and to manage the activities of the coalition,” Dempsey said of the headquarters unit.

“The group that went in there initially was really focused on just beginning to make the initial contacts (with) the Iraqi security forces and monitoring the activities of the assessment team,” he said. “This is an organization that actually has the bandwidth and the skill sets to manage a campaign.”

While saying that more than 40 countries have agreed to join the fight against the Islamic State, the Pentagon and the White House acknowledged continuing difficulties persuading Turkey to come on board.

Some of the most vicious fighting in Syria has been in its northern region near Turkey, and 1.3 million Syrian refugees have crossed the border to flee the conflict.

As a condition for joining the U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants the creation of a no-fly zone over the strip of Syria along his nation’s southern flank.

The United States would have to play a key role in enforcing such a neutral area, drawing it more directly into the Syrian civil war and putting American warplanes in confrontation with Assad’s air force.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, noting that Obama and Vice President Joe Biden met with Erdogan on Thursday in New York at the U.N. General Assembly session, said Friday that “we would anticipate that we will get cooperation from Turkey.”

Dempsey, however, was not overly receptive to Turkey’s demands, saying that “a buffer zone might, at some point, become a possibility, but that’s not part of our campaign plan presently.”

For now, Turkey’s absence from the anti-Islamic State coalition is conspicuous. It and Albania are the only predominantly Muslim members of NATO, with Turkey by far the larger of the two.

White House correspondent Anita Kumar contributed.