Washington Merry-Go-Round

Whose boots on the ground will confront ISIS?

IMMEDIATE RELEASE 14 October 2014

WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

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Whose boots on the ground will confront ISIS?

By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

WASHINGTON – The three-day meeting convened by General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, brought together top defense officials from 20 of the nations in the coalition to “degrade and destroy” ISIS, the Islamic terror group now controlling a swath of 350 miles from Syria into Iraq. Other than the United Nations or some other comparable regional gathering, this assemblage of military thinkers from the Middle East and beyond gathered at Andrews Air Force Base just outside Washington has got to be a first of its kind outside of NATO.

President Obama stopped by on Tuesday to offer a pep talk, congratulating the coalition for successfully defending the Mosul dam in Iraq while cautioning this will be “a long-term campaign” involving “periods of progress and setbacks.” It’s not clear that Obama stuck around long enough to hear what the generals in the room had to say, but he didn’t have to because their position is well known.

They’re saying what just about every analyst is saying, that ISIS cannot be defeated without putting troops on the ground. Air power alone cannot do the job. Without endorsing any conspiracy theories, it’s worth pointing out that it was Dempsey who recently testified before Congress that if he thought ground troops were needed in the current conflict against ISIS he would recommend to the president.

But there is no evidence anyone is telling Obama he needs to reconsider his pledge not to commit boots on the ground in Iraq or Syria. Obama remains determined not to make this primarily America’s fight, and the countries in the Middle East have to step up to the task of defending their own interests with their own young men and women.

Everybody is pointing a finger at the Turks, who share a border with Syria, have a well-equipped fighting force, and as a member state in NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, they are expected to do their share. So far, Turkish President Erdogan has turned a deaf ear to any direct involvement. He will permit some training of Syrian rebels on Turkish soil, but that’s it, and that’s not enough.

Erdogan is not simply being obstinate; he has real reasons to steer clear of helping the Kurds in Syria who are being overrun by ISIS. Turkey has been fighting the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Eastern Turkey for some time, and they are aligned with the Kurds in Northern Syria. The U.S. State Department designates the PKK as a terrorist group. As Obama was meeting with the coalition generals, Turkey was launching air strikes against the PKK on Turkish soil, instead of joining the fight against ISIS in Syria.

President Obama is learning as President Bush did before him how strong the sectarian and ethnic rivalries are in this part of the world. Erdogan says he won’t do anything to help the Kurds in Syria, who are facing a humanitarian disaster, because they won’t take up arms against Syrian President Assad. Anything Turkey does to assist the Kurds by implication helps Assad stay in power. Assad has basically left the Kurds alone, and in retribution, Erdogan has been stopping Kurdish reinforcements from going through Turkey.

Everybody in that room with Obama on Tuesday is working his own angle, taking into account his country’s internal and external enemies, and turning the argument back on the U.S. If it weren’t for the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which destabilized the region, ISIS would never have taken root first in Iraq, then in Syria. The new Iraqi Army (America disbanded the original Iraqi Army) either can’t fight or won’t fight, and unless the U.S. goes first in committing ground troops, these generals are staying on the sidelines. That’s the standoff, and so far neither side has blinked.

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