Washington Merry-Go-Round

Boots on the ground may be the only choice

IMMEDIATE RELEASE 16 January 2015

WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

Today’s Events in Historical Perspective

America’s Longest-Running Column, Founded 1932

Boots on the ground may be the only choice

By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

WASHINGTON – What with the holidays, followed by the terrorist attack in Paris, and the crash of more than 50 percent in oil prices, not much is heard about ISIS fighters, the ultra-extremist Islamic jihadists who control large swaths of Iraq and Syria. That news coverage is about to change.

The American air campaign that began last summer managed to stop ISIS from taking Kobani on the Turkish border, and it has taken out some of the organization’s leadership. Further, the Pentagon claims these strikes have stopped ISIS momentum, which is code for an acknowledgement that the enemy continues to hold the ground it has already taken. Yet, even that assessment is incorrect, because the Pentagon states that more than one million additional Syrians have come under ISIS control.

It must be remembered that ISIS control means ISIS recruits due to the groups’ join-or-die policy. The net result, then, of the air campaign has been a decided gain for ISIS. Clearly, the group has learned how to combat an air campaign that is largely unsupported by motivated ground troops. The key to such tactics is dispersal off the battlefield; concentration on it. In other words, units too small to be rich military targets concentrate in coordination with similar units only at the objective site, usually a fortification, city, or town. The idea is to mass at points where close-in fighting prevents air attacks for fear of firing on friendly troops.

At present, ISIS controls more than a third of Syria and somewhat less of Iraq, and its next move is obvious. ISIS is about to burst upon the headlines once again, this time when it makes plays for Baghdad and Damascus. This is possible because ISIS is far stronger today than it was before the U.S. air campaign began. And even if ISIS fails to gain these objectives through tactical successes, it will achieve a strategic success simply by showing the Iraqis and Syrians the growing strength of its forces. This would be reminiscent of the 1968 Tet Offensive by communist forces in Vietnam. It was a huge tactical failure for them, and a clear strategic victory because it proved they were strong enough to persist in the war. From that moment, the U.S. primarily sought a means of extrication.

Since only limited numbers of U.S. ground troops are in Iraq, and presumably none in Syria, extrication would not be a problem there. It also means that the defense of Baghdad and Damascus is a problem, an immediate problem.

Apparently, the allied ground plan has called for an increased involvement of Iraqi Army and moderate Syrian rebels, joined with troops from Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the semi-autonomous Kurdish region. So far, this has been nothing more than an unrealistic dream. What is realistic is that one U.S. division could reverse the situation overnight, although in the face of American public opposition, this best-of-all-options is likely to be the last-of-all-options. Is there a middle ground? If so, it has not appeared, leaving America with two bad choices, the ISIS occupation of Syria and Iraq versus the introduction of U.S. boots on the ground.

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© 2015 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

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