The Pentagon is weighing airstrikes in Iraq because of a growing belief that Iraqi security forces will be unable to take back territory seized by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham on their own, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said Thursday.
"Assessing and advising and enabling are very different words than attacking, defeating, and disrupting," Dempsey said about the current U.S. role in Iraq. "We may get to that point if our national interests drive us there, if ISIL becomes such a threat to the homeland that the president of the United States with our advice decides that we have to take direct action."
His comments come as Saudi Arabia stepped up its own involvement, deploying 30,000 of its troops to the Iraqi border to prevent the ISIS fighters who have conquered broad swaths of Syria and Iraq — and renamed that territory the Islamic State — from expanding into the kingdom as well. U.S. officials fear that ISIS may eventually try to hit both Saudi Arabia and Jordan, a vital American ally. An attack on Jordan, which has a special relationship with both the United States and Israel, could prompt a much more intensive American military intervention.
In the meantime, the U.S. military continues to expand its operations in Iraq, setting up a second joint operations center in Erbil, the capital of semi-independent Kurdistan, to complement the one already up and running in Baghdad, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced.
The United States has a much better intelligence picture than it did two weeks ago, Dempsey said, but the intermingling of Sunnis who oppose the current Shiite-dominated government and full-blown ISIS extremists would pose a difficult challenge should the United States decide to conduct airstrikes.
A total of six U.S. assessment teams are now on the ground to develop a clearer picture of the state of the Iraqi security forces and the strength of the ISIS extremists, but Dempsey said the initial reports are not encouraging. Iraqi security forces are "stiffening" and appear able to defend Baghdad, but he said they will likely be unable to retake the territory seized by the Islamic State militants. This includes large swaths of land in the northwest and the cities of Fallujah, Ramadi, and Mosul.
"Will the Iraqis at some point be able to go back on the offensive to recapture the part of Iraq that they’ve lost?… Probably not by themselves," Dempsey said.
That does not necessarily mean the United States would contribute direct military support to help them out, but it’s not an option the Pentagon is willing to rule out yet, Dempsey said.
The roughly 800 American troops that are there now advising the Iraqi security forces and assessing the security situation on the ground are not performing any combat missions against the Islamic insurgents, Dempsey and Hagel said.
Dempsey described the threat posed by ISIS today as a regional one, but said it could become transregional or global over time.
But today, the group is "stretched," in Iraq, in terms of its logistics and maintaining control of the territory they’ve gained, Dempsey said.
If they were to be taken on offensively, Iraqi forces would ideally hit the militants from multiple directions, he said. "You’d like to squeeze them from the south and west, you’d like to squeeze them from the north, and you’d like to squeeze them from Baghdad."
But before any such plan is developed and before the United States determines what role, if any, it would play in that type of offensive, Washington would first need to know whether the Iraqi government would be a reliable U.S. partner with buy-in from the country’s embittered Sunni and Kurdish minorities. The White House is considering airstrikes against ISIS targets, but has said it first wants to see the creation of a unity government.
"If the answer to that is no, then the future is pretty bleak," Dempsey said.