June 15, 2015 | Commentary on National Security and Defense, Armed Forces, Terrorism

U.S. has power to stop train wreck in Iraq, Syria

The unfolding political, humanitarian and security disaster involving Iraq, Syria and the Islamic State is like watching a slow-motion train wreck.

You desperately want to look away, but you can’t.

While President Obama has been tagged with not having a “complete strategy” for dealing with the Islamic State, based on his own G-7 summit comments this week, the fact is the current plan — whether complete or incomplete — is failing.

One needn’t look very far for evidence.

For instance, it’s been reported that the Islamic State may now hold some 50 percent of Syria; it has one-third of Iraq and holds Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul. Millions now live under ISIS rule.

The Iraqi army is in disarray; issues range from leadership problems to the “will to fight,” as U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter suggested to CNN recently after the Iraqi forces’ retreat from Ramadi.

The U.S.-led coalition air campaign isn’t going so well, either. It’s been reported that 75 percent of American air missions return to base with their bombs due to a lack of targets. That’s troubling since it’s a key pillar of our current strategy.

We also can’t be happy about the rise of Iranian influence in Iraq or Syria, which can be tied to regional policy shortcomings, including the 2011 U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. That created political and security vacuums which bad actors have in turn filled.

The White House’s response?

Send another 450 American soldiers to Iraq. That’s not much, unless, of course, you’re trying to provide political cover for the prez’s G-7 “gaffe” about an incomplete plan for training the Iraqis.

Following on his campaign promise to end the war in Iraq, Obama wants America to do as little as possible, instead relying on the Iraqis to extinguish the ISIS threat.

That’s not working so far. The coalition needs to step up its game.

First, the president needs to tell us where we are — and where we go from here.

Second, the coalition needs to make the air campaign more effective through better targeting, which may mean (someone’s) special operations forces on the ground.

Next, we need more coalition strikes on the Islamic State leadership, such as the raid against ISIS’s “money man,” Abu Sayyaf, when intelligence allows.

Then, the coalition should organize the Sunni tribes — which looks likely — and arm the Kurds. Iraq’s Shia government is skeptical, but there’s no other choice with a five-alarm fire burning the country down.

If Iraqi forces continue to flounder, we may also need to assign some American advisers to Iraqi units to put some “spine” into their operations.

We shouldn’t rule out deploying U.S. forces in a combat role if things get worse.

Lastly, we need a game plan for Syria. To “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State, as the president called for last September, we need get at them in their Syrian stronghold.

It would be nice if we didn’t have to consider these — and other — tough choices for dealing with ISIS, but, let’s face it, our current strategy isn’t getting the job done.

But unlike the proverbial train wreck, the coalition isn’t powerless to do something about it — and before the situation gets worse, we should.

 - Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Originally appeared in Boston Herald