National Security

U.S. flounders for answers in quick-shifting Syria, Iraq

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at a press briefing at the United Nations headquarters Thursday: ‘If it looks like a terrorist, it if acts like a terrorist, it it walks like a terrorist, if it fights like a terrorist, it’s a terrorist.’
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at a press briefing at the United Nations headquarters Thursday: ‘If it looks like a terrorist, it if acts like a terrorist, it it walks like a terrorist, if it fights like a terrorist, it’s a terrorist.’ AP

Like someone on an accelerating treadmill becoming steeper by the minute, the U.S. government is struggling to keep pace with a battlefield in Syria and Iraq that’s changing at warp speed.

With new Iranian forces reportedly entering Syria following the launch of Russian airstrikes there, the Pentagon said Thursday that it had suspended sending U.S.-trained Syrians back into their homeland while it reassesses the troubled train-and-equip program.

Despite insisting that Moscow’s entry into the air wars hadn’t affected the American campaign in Syria, military officials acknowledged that in the 24 hours after Russian bombing began Wednesday, there were 22 U.S.-led airstrikes in Iraq but only one in Syria.

And after months of touting the success of U.S. training of Iraqi Security Forces, the Pentagon said Thursday for the first time that its preparation of Iraqi soldiers had been inadequate to retake major cities held by the Islamic State.

“We trained and built a counterinsurgency force,” Army Col. Steve Warren, spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, told Pentagon reporters from Baghdad via video conference. “And this is much more of a conventional fight.”

In contrast to the shifting and contradictory statements from Washington, the Kremlin provided a simple rationale for its entry into the chaotic Syrian civil war.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow’s bombing targets “do not go beyond ISIL, al Nusra or other terrorist groups.” ISIL is a common acronym for the Islamic State, which is also sometimes referred to as ISIS.

Asked during a news conference at the United Nations what he meant by “other terrorist groups,” Lavrov responded: “If it looks like a terrorist, it if acts like a terrorist, it it walks like a terrorist, if it fights like a terrorist, it’s a terrorist.”

From his fortified base in Baghdad, Warren had more difficulty explaining why the Iraqis have been unable to mount an offensive to reclaim Ramadi, a key city 70 miles west of Baghdad and the capital of Sunni-dominated Anbar province; Islamic State militants captured it 4 1/2 months ago.

Like the trench warfare of World War I and earlier conflicts, Warren said that the Islamic State had surrounded Ramadi with concentric armor featuring minefields filled with improvised bombs.

Tens of thousands of Libyans have died in four years of war since the United States helped depose dictator Muammar Gaddafi in October 2011.

“They’ve defended Ramadi almost in an early-20th-century style, with belts of defenses,” Warren said.

The Islamic State has held Mosul, the country’s third-largest city in northern Iraq near the Syrian border, since June 2014, despite repeated vows by the Iraqi government to take it back.

In Syria, Russian bombers appeared to own the skies during a second day of raids that it said were aimed at the Islamic State, but which struck targets, including pro-American forces, in areas with no trace of the militant Muslims’ presence.

“The Russians were very clear publicly that they were going to strike ISIL,” Warren said. “I’m not going to get into exactly who they hit, but we don’t believe that they struck ISIL targets. So that’s a problem, right?”

It was definitely a problem for Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Saying that the Russians are inserting themselves in the Middle East more than at any time since 1973, McCain added: “They are treating us with the utmost contempt. Vladimir Putin has the upper hand,” he said, referring to Russia’s president.

While the Pentagon criticized Russia for supporting the armed forces and government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, senior U.S. military officials began talks with their Russian counterparts to ensure that the two nations’ warplanes didn’t collide or start firing at one another during sorties over the war-torn country.

“If we can take steps to avoid miscalculation, misjudgment, to avoid some sort of accident happening in the skies, we are going to at least engage in that conversation right now with the Russians, and we’ll see where that goes,” Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook told reporters in a separate briefing.

“This does not mean that we are condoning, if you will, what Russia’s done, supportive of what they’ve done,” Cook said.

As for Teheran, Warren downplayed new movement by hundreds of Iranian ground forces in Syria.

They are treating us with the utmost contempt. (Russian President) Vladimir Putin has the upper hand.

Sen. John McCain, Senate Armed Services Committee chairman

“We know the Iranians are a part of this,” he said. “We’ve known that since Day One. The Iranians have a presence here in Iraq, the Iranians have a presence in Syria. You know, this has been something that’s, I think, been fairly public, really since this all began.”

At the Pentagon, the White House and in Congress, American leaders continued to toe the government’s official line that Assad is a brutal dictator who must give up power.

Warren gave a passionate response when asked why the United States doesn’t at least engage with Assad in a way similar to how it engaged with Iran in negotiating a controversial deal to slow its nuclear program.

“I’d like to remind you that Assad is washed in blood,” Warren said. “His hands are drenched in the blood of civilians, his own people. He barrel-bombed them, he’s done chemical-weapon strikes against them, he starved them, he has done everything to hurt his own people. So we don’t communicate with the Syrian government here at the Joint Task Force at all. We have nothing to say to the Syrian government.”

But behind the wall of defiance toward Damascus, some dissenting voices were heard.

“The question that the administration and any one else who is advocating to take out Assad has to answer is – what happens next?” asked Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a Hawaii Democrat and Iraq war veteran.

“I’ll tell you what happens,” Gabbard said. “What happens is if Assad gets taken out, ISIS and these Islamic extremist groups walk in the front door. Then we’re talking about a very serious threat because not only do they have more territory, but they’re taking over Syria’s highly capable weapons systems.”

Over all the uncertainty of war and politics hung the ghosts of recent U.S. military campaigns gone bad.

Urging Americans “to learn from our lessons in the past,” Gabbard recalled the chaos that ensued when the United States led military initiatives to topple Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi without having reliable local leaders to replace them.

“The same things that are being said about Assad were said about Saddam Hussein,” Gabbard told CNN. “They were said about Gadhafi in Libya.”

James Rosen: 202-383-0014; @jamesmartinrose