TIME Syria

The U.S. Is Risking Stalemate by Expanding the Anti-ISIS Air War Into Syria

U.S. Navy Targets Gaddafi Military Sites On the Libyan Coast
The U.S. attacked targets inside Syria early Tuesday with Tomahawk missiles like this one, shown being launched against Libya from a U.S. Navy warship in the Mediterranean Sea in 2011. U.S. Navy / Getty Images

Bombing the militants will halt their expansion, but it will not wipe them out

Tuesday’s bombing of Islamic militant targets inside Syria by U.S. and allied aircraft marks a sharp escalation of the conflict, with no guarantee of success.

The strikes, in and around Raqqa, the Syrian city that is the home base of the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), began with 47 Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from U.S. Navy ships. Air Force and Navy warplanes, along with unmanned drones, followed in their wake, defense officials said. The Air Force’s F-22 fighter-bomber also made its combat debut during the operation. Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates played unspecified roles in the attacks. All aircraft returned safely.

“The strikes destroyed or damaged multiple [ISIS] targets in the vicinity of Raqqa, Dayr az Zawr, Al Hasakah, and Abu Kamal,” U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla., said of four towns that are ISIS strongholds. Targets “included [ISIS] fighters, training compounds, headquarters and command and control facilities, storage facilities, a finance center, supply trucks and armed vehicles,” Central Command said in its early-morning statement. More than 150 precision-guided munitions were used against 14 different targets.

ISIS wasn’t the only group targeted inside Syria. “Separately, the United States has also taken action to disrupt the imminent attack plotting against the United States and Western interests conducted by a network of seasoned al Qaeda veterans—sometimes referred to as the Khorasan Group—who have established a safe haven in Syria to develop external attacks, construct and test improvised explosive devices and recruit Westerners to conduct operations,” the Central Command statement added. “These strikes were undertaken only by U.S. assets.” The Pentagon conducted eight strikes against Khorasan targets west of the Syrian city of Aleppo, including “training camps, an explosives and munitions production facility, a communication building and command and control facilities.”

“We wanted to make sure that [ISIS] knew they have no safe haven,” Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters as he flew back to Washington from Europe. “We certainly achieved that.”

Expanding the set of ISIS targets—the U.S. had attacked some 200 ISIS locations, all in Iraq, before Tuesday—is a military gamble with unpredictable consequences.

President Obama warned he would launch expanded strikes in a speech on Sept. 10.

“I have made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are,” Obama said. “That means I will not hesitate to take action against [ISIS] in Syria, as well as Iraq. This is a core principle of my presidency: if you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.”

The Pentagon’s war plan “includes targeted actions against [ISIS] safe havens in Syria — including its command and control, logistics capabilities, and infrastructure,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told Congress last week. “Our actions will not be restrained by a border that exists in name only.”

U.S. intelligence assets — including satellites and drones — have therefore been scouring eastern Syria for ISIS targets in recent weeks.

The new attacks, against fixed ISIS targets, undoubtedly did significant damage. But they also will force ISIS fighters to hunker down, now that their sanctuary inside Syria has been breached. This means that the jihadists, who have shown little regard for civilians, will move in among them in the relatively few towns and villages in eastern Syria, betting that the U.S. and its allies will not attack them there and risk killing innocents.

That could lead to a stalemate. While air strikes are likely to keep ISIS from massing its forces, and traveling in easy-to-spot convoys, air power can do little to stop small groups of fighters from billeting with and intimidating the local population.

Senior U.S. military officers, including Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and General Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, have said in recent days that they may recommend to Obama that small numbers of U.S. ground forces be sent into the fight, to ensure the accuracy of U.S. air strikes.

But most of the fighting on the ground in Iraq against ISIS will be done by Iraqi forces, U.S. officials say. “Moderate” Syrian rebels will battle ISIS on the ground inside Syria. However, the U.S. plans to train only 5,000 such rebels in the coming year — a small force compared with ISIS’s estimated 30,000 fighters. That mismatch is another reason why the conflict could bog down.

U.S. military officials have made it clear that if they are to have any chance of success against ISIS, they have to be able to strike at it inside Syria. In Afghanistan, the ability of the Taliban to move into Pakistan, where they were safe from U.S. attacks, is a major reason why they remain a potent threat to Afghanistan’s future stability, even after 13 years of war.

The Syrian government of Bashar Assad has a robust air-defense system — focused, admittedly, in the western part of the country, near the capital of Damascus, and not in the relatively desolate east. Nonetheless, its existence means that U.S. air strikes are not without risk.

ISIS and other anti-Assad groups have been waging a civil war, in which 200,000 people have died, against the Syrian government for three years. It’s that war — and the sectarian strife across the border in Iraq — that ISIS has been able to exploit. Over the past year, it has seized a vast portion of eastern Syria and western Iraq and declared it to be an Islamic state.

TIME Military

Army’s Top Officer Wonders if the Post-9/11 Wars Have Been Worth It

Senate Armed Services Committee Holds Hearing With Top Military Officials On Compensation
General Ray Odierno testifies before Congress in May. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

“I’m not willing to comment on that yet,” Gen. Ray Odierno says

At 60, Ray Odierno may be an old soldier. But he has yet to fade away.

He’s now serving as the Army’s top officer, following three senior assignments in Iraq between 2003 and 2010. Few, if any, commanders wearing a U.S. military uniform have spent as much time as the Army’s 38th chief of staff trying to get the nation’s post-9/11 wars right.

Ft. Hood Soldiers Prepare for Deployment
Odierno, 2003 Getty Images

So there he was over breakfast with reporters Friday, trying to explain the U.S. military’s effort, from the sky, to rid Iraq, and then Syria, of the jihadists belonging to the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

“Air strikes have slowed the advances of [ISIS],” he said. “But air strikes alone won’t defeat [ISIS]. You need a complementary ground capability that will go in and do that.” He, like other Pentagon leaders, wouldn’t rule out asking President Obama to dispatch small numbers of U.S. ground troops to the fight, even though Obama has said that will not happen. “I never rule anything out,” Odierno said.

Commander of the 4th Infantry Division o
Odierno, 2004 Getty Images

But it’s Iraqis and Syrians who will have to do most of the fighting on the ground, he added. U.S. air strikes will only drive ISIS fighters into urban areas, where innocent civilians will serve to protect them from American bombs and missiles, he warned. It will be a challenge to ensure the U.S. and its allies only train and outfit Syrian rebels dedicated to removing ISIS. “We must be sure they are who they are,” he said, “and won’t be part of some extremist group.”

US Army Lieutenant General Ray Odierno,
Odierno, 2007 Getty Images

Such woes have dogged U.S. efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan for more than a decade. His recitation reminded this reporter of seeing then-Major General Odierno in Kirkuk, Iraq, in December 2003, explaining how things were going in the 4th Infantry Division he commanded. Attacks on his troops were down, and they were hot on Saddam Hussein’s tail. A week later, they pulled the fugitive former Iraqi leader from his spider hole.

Gen. Odierno Holds Press Briefing On Security Situation In Iraq
Odierno, 2010 Getty Images

But such early progress proved elusive later on in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Odierno has felt that shortfall, personally. Eight months after Saddam’s capture, Odierno’s son, Tony, an Army captain and West Point graduate like his father, lost his left arm to an RPG round that killed the driver of his Humvee. Friday’s breakfast had been delayed a month because the original date conflicted with honors for Army Major General Harold Greene. The most senior U.S. officer to die in the wars following 9/11, Greene had been killed by a member of the Afghan army, a supposed ally.

Those were low points in what has become a 13-year grind, and that threatens—despite Obama’s best intentions—to continue for years to come. Has it been worth it?

To his credit, Odierno didn’t respond with a reflexive “Yes.” The hulking, nearly 6-foot-6, bald-headed general said he has been asked the question before. That only makes his answer more credible:

That’s a very difficult question…The bottom line on all of this is, as I think my way through this, is that first, as a soldier, what we do is we try to provide the capability to try to provide security for the nation. And we try to conduct the missions we’re given. As we’ve worked our way through this, one of the lessons I’ve learned is that military power is not the solution to everything—it’s got to be a combination of many other things—military, economic, political, diplomatic, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. I would even argue in my area of operation in 2003—the violence was down, we had just captured the leader, things were looking pretty good—but there was an under-estimation of the societal devastation that had happened inside Iraq. The bottom line is that the Middle East is all inter-connected and it is going to cause problems and we have to stay involved in it. I don’t know what the end state is going to be yet.

What I do know is its terrorist groups are very threatening to both the United States and Europe. I brought some of our leaders up to New York to the 9/11 museum—I suggest everyone go, by the way, I suggest every American go to this 9/11 museum—and it was eerie listening to what was being said in 1991, ’92, ’93, ’94 by Osama bin Laden. It sounds very similar to what we’re hearing out of [ISIS] today. So we have to realize that this is a long-term threat that takes a long-term commitment. And if we don’t believe they want to attack the West and America, you’re kidding yourself…We have to make a decision on whether we are going to be pro-active in doing this, or are we going to wait until it’s too late.

So what’s helped me through all this is, I believe, we are attempting to be pro-active and to protect this country and the freedoms that we have. And I don’t want to sound Pollyannish, but I truly believe that. I think we have to continue to do this, although things have not gone the way I thought they would go. Things are not as smooth as I thought they would be. There’s been personal sacrifice, but not just by my family, but thousands of families in this country. I think we have to remember that there is, I believe, a threat to this country.

So has it been worth it?

I think it’s yet to be determined. I think this is going to be a long endeavor, and I think we have to let history decide that. I’m not willing to comment on that yet.

What’s surprising isn’t how little Odierno sounds a typical Army general, but how much he sounds like a typical American.

TIME Syria

Thousands Are Fleeing From Syria to Turkey to Escape the Latest ISIS Onslaught

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Syrian Kurds carry belongings as they cross the border between Syria and Turkey near the southeastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province, on Sept. 20, 2014. Bulent Kilic—AFP/Getty Images

Turkey is already home to nearly 1.5 million Syrian refugees

At least 100,000 Syrian refugees flooded across the border into Turkey over the weekend as Sunni extremist fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) launched an offensive against Kurdish communities in northern Syria.

Approximately 150,000 people have been displaced since ISIS began to encircle the border town of Kobani, also known as Ayn al-Arab, last week.

“Four or five days ago this area was quite safe,” Selin Unal, a spokesperson with the U.N.’s refugee agency, the UNHCR, told TIME on Monday. “And then after three days, 100,000 Syrians fled to Turkey.”

The militants have reportedly routed dozens of towns and executed at least 11 people in the villages outside of Kobani, according to activists.

“[ISIS] are continuing to advance,” Welat Avar, a doctor, told Reuters from Kobani. “Every place they pass through they kill, wound and kidnap people. Many people are missing and we believe they were kidnapped.”

International aid groups and Turkish officials warned that thousands of additional refugees are likely to try to cross the border in the coming days amid the militants’ offensive. Before the weekend’s onslaught, Turkey had already been home to close to 1.5 million refugees from the conflict-torn nation.

“Turkish government authorities and UNHCR are preparing for the possibility of hundreds of thousands more refugees arriving over the coming days, as the battle for the northern Syrian city of Kobani forces more people to flee,” read a statement released by the U.N. refugee agency over the weekend.

On Sunday, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group classified as a terrorist organization by both Ankara and Washington, called on fellow Kurds to take up arms to repel ISIS.

“Supporting this heroic resistance is not just a debt of honor of the Kurds but all Middle East people. Just giving support is not enough, the criterion must be taking part in the resistance,” the PKK said in a statement.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that hundreds of Kurdish fighters from inside Turkey crossed into Syria over the weekend to help beat back the ISIS offensive. Near the border, Turkish Kurds demonstrated in solidarity with the refugees, leading to clashes with authorities, who deployed tear gas and water cannon against the protesters.

While ISIS’s thrust in Iraq has been largely slowed by U.S. air strikes, American forces have yet to target the militant group’s myriad positions in neighboring Syria, thus allowing the group to continue to consume large swaths of territory across the country’s north and east.

During an interview on CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power hinted that the White House and its allies are ready to strike in Syria, but refrained from announcing how the Obama Administration was preparing to do so.

“The President has said we’re not going to allow [ISIS] to have a safe haven in Syria,” said Power. “But no decisions have been made in terms of how we’re going to proceed in that.”

Earlier this month, Turkey refrained from joining the U.S.-led coalition aiming to take the fight to the jihadist organization.

The uptick in violence along Turkey’s frontier coincides with the release of 49 Turkish diplomats over the weekend. All 49 had been in ISIS’s custody for three months since jihadist militants routed Iraqi security forces in Mosul in July.

Ankara has yet to provide firm details regarding the so-called rescue operation that succeeded in freeing the diplomats.

TIME energy

ISIS’s Ultimate Goal: Saudi Arabia’s Oil Wells

Saudi Arabia oil
Saudi Arabia has the richest reserves of oil on the planet Marwan Naamani—AFP/Getty Images

The terror group has its sights set on the world's biggest oil reserves

Originally appeared on OilPrice.com

For the terrorist group known as the Islamic State, Syria and Iraq were a good place to start their campaign, but in order to survive and prosper it knew from the outset that it had no choice but to set its sights on the ultimate prize: the oil fields of Saudi Arabia.

It is in that direction that the battle for control of the world’s largest oil fields is currently heading.

Islamic State — which has its origins in al-Qaeda – knows fully well that in order to sustain itself as a viable and lasting religious, political, economic and military entity in the region, it has to follow the same objectives established by al-Qaeda when Osama bin Laden broke off his relations with the Saudi monarchy and vowed to bring down the House of Saud.

Bin Laden’s ire at the Saudi monarchy stemmed from the fact that Saudi King Fahd bin Abdulaziz Al Saud invited the American military to use Saudi Arabia as a staging area to build up forces to take on the then Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein after Iraqi troops occupied Kuwait in August of 1990. Bin Laden objected to the presence of “infidels” in the land of the two holy mosques, and asked the king to allow his outfit to tackle Saddam Hussein’s troops.

Similarly, IS knows that it will only feel secure once Saudi Arabia is part of the Caliphate, and its oil fields are under IS control — which is why the group has two logical next steps.

First, to capture and secure the most important country in the Muslim world: Saudi Arabia.

If the battle for Syria and Iraq attracted tens of hundreds, (some say tens of thousands) of young Muslims, the battle for control of Islam’s two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, are very likely to attract many more fighters into the ranks of the Islamic State.

And second, to take on the United States — the one remaining superpower that could stop its march on the oilfields of Saudi Arabia, and ultimately the rest of the Gulf.

After much hesitation, it now appears that the Obama administration has come around to realizing the true danger posed by IS. Washington, along with some of its NATO allies, is now formulating a plan to defeat IS.

However, it may be wise to point out that Washington’s track record in dealing with Middle East problems has not been something to crow about. As a point of reference, one need only mention Iraq and Afghanistan — both prime examples of how not to do things.

Even if the U.S. can defeat IS militarily, any victory would only be temporary since eventually, U.S. troops will pull out and the remnants of IS would emerge from their respective hiding places, as they did after Saddam Hussein’s capture and death. Indeed, a U.S. intervention — through its massive air campaign — will foment even greater animosity toward the West in general, and the United States, in particular. It’s all déjà vu.

The one power that can effectively move against IS in a manner that would appear legitimate to other Muslims is Saudi Arabia, as Nawaf Obaid, a fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and Saud al-Sarhan, research director at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies pointed out in a joint opinion piece published Sept. 9 in the New York Times.

The authors dispute the widely believed notion that Saudi Arabia created IS and is funding it. “Saudi Arabia is not the source of ISIS — it’s the group’s primary target,” they write.

As Obaid and al-Sarhan put it, “The Saudi leadership has a unique form of religious credibility and legitimacy, which will make it far more effective than other governments at delegitimizing ISIS’s monstrous terrorist ideology.”

What makes IS powerful today is the fact that they laid out their military strategy based on where oil fields are located. The fact that they went after northeast Syria and northern Iraq is not coincidental by any means. Islamic State may be ruthless and brutal, but it is first and foremost a terrorist organization with an astute business plan.

The capture of oil wells in Syria and Iraq has made the group financially self-sufficient. Now it’s all or nothing.

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TIME Australia

Australian Police Foil Islamist Terrorist Plot in Country’s Largest Ever Raid

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New South Wales police commissioner Andrew Scipione, second from right, speaks during a press conference in Sydney on Sept. 18, 2014, after Australia's largest ever counterterrorism raids detained 15 people and disrupted plans to "commit violent acts" William West—AFP/Getty Images

More than 800 security personnel raided 25 addresses in two cities

Australian security officials say that they have thwarted an alleged plot by Islamist extremists to snatch a random member of the Australian public and behead them on camera.

The revelation comes after raids on 25 homes across Sydney and Brisbane early Thursday morning by more than 800 uniformed police officers, forensic experts, and agents from chief spy agency ASIO, in the largest counterterrorism raid every conducted on Australian soil.

The raids resulted in the seizure of computers, documents, a firearm and the arrest of 15 suspects, one of whom, 22-year-old Omarjan Azari, will face court in Sydney later on Thursday, when details of the alleged beheading plot are expected to be revealed.

“You know it is of serious concern that right at the heart of our communities we have people that are planning to conduct random attacks,” New South Wales police commissioner Andrew Scipione said at a press briefing. “Today we worked together to make sure that didn’t happen. We have disrupted that particular attack.”

The swoop took place on the same day that 10 Australian military aircraft, 400 support personnel and 200 special-forces troops were dispatched to the United Arab Emirates as part of the U.S.-led coalition against IS militants in Syria and Iraq.

The raids also follow the arrest last week in Brisbane of two suspects at an Islamic bookstore, accused of recruiting jihadist fighters for Syria, and an announcement by Prime Minister Tony Abbott that the country’s terrorism-alert level had been raised from medium to high.

Abbott said at the time there was “no specific intelligence of particular plots” but asked the community to be vigilant and warmed of an increase in security measures at airports, government buildings and major events, including the 2014 G-20 summit to be held in Brisbane from Nov. 15 to 16.

Clive Williams, an adjunct professor with the Department of Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism at the Australian National University, tells TIME that the recent cancellation of the passports of up to 60 Australians suspected of extremist links may have inadvertently increased the chance of an attack on home soil.

“The policy of stopping extremists from traveling overseas and fighting in Syria or Iraq has resulted in a large pool of frustrated people,” he explains. “They are a large risk to us and more of a threat than [Australian jihadists] who are already in the Middle East and may decide to come back one day.”

Sam Makinda, professor and founder of Murdoch University’s security, terrorism and counterterrorism studies program, says that “having supported the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Iraq in 2003 and so on, Australia had long ago painted itself as a target.”

He adds, “The only reason Australia has not yet suffered a terror attack is because ASIO has worked so efficiently, professionally and successfully in the past.”

TIME National Security

An N.Y. Man Has Been Indicted for Plotting to Assist ISIS

Mufid Elfgeeh
A June 2, 2014, file photo of Mufid Elfgeeh provided by the Monroe County Sheriff's Office AP

Federal investigators claim the suspect sought to help get two FBI informants into Syria, where they would fight for the terrorist group

An upstate New York man was indicted by a federal grand jury on Tuesday for allegedly seeking to aid the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), as well as murder U.S. soldiers returning home.

Mufid Elfgeeh, 30, of Rochester, N.Y., was charged with three counts of attempting to provide material support and resources to the Iraq- and Syria-based terrorist group, one count of attempted murder of current and former members of the U.S. military, and three counts of weapons-related offenses, according to the Justice Department.

“We will remain aggressive in identifying and disrupting those who seek to provide support to [ISIS] and other terrorist groups that are bent on inflicting harm upon Americans,” said U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, in a statement.

“We are focused on breaking up these activities on the front end, before supporters of [ISIS] can make good on plans to travel to the region or recruit sympathizers to this cause,” he said.

The U.S. government has been aggressively seeking to stop Americans from joining ISIS, which has seen considerable success in courting extremist foreigners, especially from the Middle East, but also from the U.S. and Europe.

President Barack Obama is expected to chair a U.N. Security Council meeting on Sept. 24, at which member states will adopt a resolution mandating that all nations criminalize the act of attempting to join or in any way aid a foreign terrorist organization, Reuters reports.

Federal investigators contend that Elfgeeh sought to help two people, who were cooperating with the FBI, to travel to Syria to fight with ISIS. Elfgeeh also sent $600 to someone in Yemen to help with travel arrangements to Syria, where that person planned to join ISIS, investigators allege.

In December 2013, Elfgeeh also allegedly told one of the FBI’s sources that he was thinking he would “just go[ing] around and start shooting” at returned members of the U.S. armed forces. Two months later, Elfgeeh allegedly gave the source $1,050 in cash and arranged to collect two handguns, plus ammunition and silencers, in the spring, investigators say. Government officials had made the guns inoperable before selling them to Elfgeeh, investigators said.

On May 31, 2014, just after Elfgeeh took the guns, the Rochester Joint Terrorism Task Force arrested him, the federal government said.

TIME Military

Top General Tweaks Obama’s Iraq War Plan

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs suggests U.S. ground troops might be need in combat

The nation’s top military officer fired tracer rounds at President Obama’s vow not to send U.S. troops back into ground combat in Iraq Tuesday during his testimony on Capitol Hill. In fact, Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, did it three times in his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

And while he caveated what he told the panel about the escalating fight with the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria, his message was clear: if the U.S.-led effort to defeat ISIS and oust it from its self-proclaimed Islamic State straddling the Syrian-Iraq border falls short, Dempsey will go back to the Oval Office and ask Obama for a green light to send at least a limited number of American ground-combat forces to help get the job done.

What was striking was how he delivered the message. Pentagon officials are forever saying they won’t speak in “hypotheticals”—things that might happen in the future—yet Dempsey dropped an atomic what-if into his opening statement. “If we reach the point where I believe our advisers should accompany Iraq troops on attacks against specific ISIL targets,” he said, “I’ll recommend that to the President.”

Minutes later, Senator Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the committee, asked Dempsey if having Syrian and Iraqi forces fighting ISIS on the ground was the best approach, “to avoid a Western ground force in a Arab or Muslim country?” Dempsey said Levin’s assessment was true, then added: “But if it fails to be true, and if there are threats to the United States, then I of course would go back to the President and make a recommendation that may include the use of U.S. military ground forces.” Both Dempsey and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the panel that ISIS already represents a threat to the U.S.

Then Senator Jack Reed, D-R.I., followed up by asking Dempsey what might warrant U.S. troops getting involved in ground combat on Iraqi soil. The general responded by citing the key mission facing the Iraqi security forces: retaking Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, from the ISIS. “If the Iraqi security forces and the [Kurdish] Pesh [merga fighters] were at some point ready to retake Mosul—a mission that I would find to be extraordinarily complex—it could very well be part of that particular mission to provide close combat advising or accompanying for that mission,” he said. In other words, he’s likely to make such a request.

Dempsey’s acknowledgement that a limited number of U.S. ground troops might be necessary to achieve mission success—he said he wasn’t talking about “armored divisions with flags unfurled” headed into Iraq—triggered questions for White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, who made clear the President was sticking to his guns. “The President does not believe that it would be in the best interest of our national security to deploy American ground troops in a combat role in Iraq and Syria,” Earnest said after Dempsey testified. “That policy has not changed.”

By dinnertime, Dempsey’s spokesman had issued a statement trying to clean up the mess. “While we have advisers on the ground in Iraq today, the chairman doesn’t believe there is a military requirement for our advisers to accompany Iraqi forces into combat,” Air Force Colonel Ed Thomas said. “The context of this discussion was focused on how our forces advise the Iraqis and was not a discussion of employing U.S. ground combat units in Iraq.”

The Presidential pledge has riled serving and former military officers, who believe little is to be gained by unilaterally removing military options from the table. “I think the President made a big mistake in publicly saying he would not put boots on the ground,” says Anthony Zinni, a retired Marine general who led U.S. Central Command from 1997 to 2000. “Why tell the other guy what you won’t do?”

Senator Joe Manchin, D-W.V., doesn’t think Zinni’s question is relevant. He told Dempsey and Hagel about what he’s hearing from West Virginians. They want to know, he said, how a renewed U.S. war effort in the region—after spending 13 years, $1.6 trillion and 6,600 U.S. troops’ lives in Afghanistan and Iraq—would make things better.

“We took out Saddam. We thought that would change. Iraq’s in worse shape,” Manchin said. “We take out Gadhafi. We thought that would change. It got so bad in Libya, we’ve had to pull out our own embassy and our people in our embassy… it makes no sense to me, and I can’t sell it…no one believes the outcome will be any different.”

TIME

What Are Those 1,600 (So Far) U.S. Military Advisers Doing In Iraq (So Far)

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U.S. military advisers are on the ground in Iraq to advise Kurdish Peshmerga fighters like these, taking on ISIS on Monday, but not to do any actual fighting themselves. JM Lopez—AFP/Getty Images

Pentagon insists they're assessing, advising and assisting—but not attacking

President Obama ordered U.S. military reinforcements to Iraq last week. The additional 475 troops will push the total helping the Iraqis battle jihadist militants to about 1,600. That’s 1% of the 160,000 U.S. troops in Iraq in 2008, at the peak of the U.S. deployment for the 2003-2011 war.

So it’s a relatively tiny force. But just what are these troops doing? More importantly, what are they not doing?

The Pentagon insists that they’re not going to engage in ground combat against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). They’ve spent much of the last three months—the first 300 advisers began arriving in Iraq in late June—assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the Iraqi army and the Kurdish peshmerga forces in the semi-autonomous north of the country. ISIS militants steamrolled over Iraqi forces earlier this year, culminating in their seizure of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city.

The U.S. advisers also are coordinating surveillance flights over ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria, and coordinating the growing U.S. military footprint inside Iraq.

As the assessment phase ends, about a dozen teams of 12 U.S. military personnel each are embedding with the headquarters of brigade-sized and larger Iraqi units—outfits with thousands of troops. Their goal is to advise and assist the Iraqis on how to best battle ISIS. Assigning them to higher headquarters units is designed to keep the Americans away from the front lines and out of harm’s way.

“What we’re starting to see now, thanks in part to the assistance not only that the United States has given, but other countries, we’re starting to see the Iraqi security forces meld and form into much more capable fighting force than they were,” Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said Friday.

But as the number of troops increases, their roles will expand, Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, told reporters in July. “We will match the resources we apply with the authorities and responsibilities that go with them based on the mission we undertake,” he said, “and that is to be determined.”

The Obama Administration has taken pains to explain that “no boots on the ground” inside Iraq actually means “no boots on the ground engaged in combat” inside the country. The line begins to blur when it comes to missions like calling in U.S. airstrikes. Many such attacks are best directed by someone on the ground near the target, ideally by a fellow American fluent in language, lingo and lethality. But it’s not as important as it used to be.

David Deptula, a retired Air Force lieutenant general who ran the air war over Afghanistan in its early days, says the aircraft now flying over Iraq and Syria are far more advanced than earlier models. “If you’re trying to halt the movement of ISIS forces, you don’t need somebody on the ground to tell you where they are,” he says. “Any combat aircraft can now observe the battlespace and can find, fix and engage in real time. Aircraft today—even though they go by the same names as in 1991’s Gulf War—are many times more capable because of advances in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, communications capability, and the ability to network and share information.”

But U.S. special operators are valuable in this kind of fight. Ford Sypher deployed three times to Iraq and twice to Afghanistan as a team leader with the Army’s storied 75th Ranger Regiment between 2006 and 2010. He thinks he saw U.S. troops in action on the ground in northern Iraqi town of Zumar earlier this month:

Multiple armored Toyotas swept down the mountain, passing within feet of us. The Toyotas were packed with what appeared to be bearded Western Special Operations Forces. I watched the trucks pass and saw for myself the crews inside them. They didn’t wear any identifying insignia but they were visibly Western and appeared to match all the visual characteristics of American special operations soldiers. Contacts in the Kurdish intelligence service and Peshmerga leadership confirmed what we saw. `Yes,’ one commander replied to our questions. `German and American forces are on the ground here. They are helping to support us in the attack.’

…Sypher wrote in a Daily Beast dispatch. But the Pentagon told Sypher that “there are no U.S. troops on the ground in or around Zumar.” The Pentagon, and the Obama Administration, would be lying to the nation if those were U.S. troops Sypher witnessed. That’s seems a political gamble not worth taking.

Far more likely that the “visibly Western” fighters he saw were either CIA (including loaners from Defense Intelligence Agency, who technically become CIA operatives for the assignment) or contractors (employed under a contract like this one, but not made public)—who used to be members of the U.S. military.

TIME France

Anti-ISIS Coalition Meets in Paris to Formulate Battle Plan

France Iraq Diplomacy
Iraq President Fouad Massoum, center, followed by Iraq Foreign Minister Ibrahim Al-Jaafari, left, arrive with Iraqi officials at Orly airport south of Paris, on Sept. 14, 2014 . Francois Mori—AP

Delegates from more than 20 countries have descended on the French capital to discuss how best to tackle the Islamist terrorist group

Representatives from across the Middle East and Western nations are convening Monday in Paris, where an emerging coalition will begin formulating a strategy to combat the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

Before flying to France on Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry canvassed American allies in the Middle East, aiming to rustle up support for military operations targeting the extremist Islamist group that continues to hold sway over large areas of eastern Syria and northwestern Iraq.

“I can tell you right here and now that we have countries in this region, countries outside of this region, in addition to the United States, all of whom are prepared to engage in military assistance, in actual strikes, if that is what it requires,” Kerry told CBS’s Face the Nation from Cairo on Sunday.

Kerry’s interview appeared to be part of an all-out media blitz by the Obama Administration following the U.S. President’s pledge last Wednesday to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS.

However, after issuing plenty of tough talk earlier this week, the White House has continued to remain adamant that no major deployment of U.S. combat troops will be used against the radical Sunni militants on the ground.

Instead, the Administration hopes to recruit and bolster Sunni proxy forces in the Middle East, including opposition groups currently fighting inside Syria.

“Ultimately, to destroy [ISIS], we do need to have a force, an anvil against which they will be pushed, ideally Sunni forces,” White House chief of staff Denis McDonough said during an interview on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday. This was the thinking, he said, behind the “proposal that the President has sent to Congress to authorize us to train and equip the Syrian opposition that’s on the ground fighting [ISIS] today.”

During an address on Sunday, President Barack Obama called for “a targeted, relentless counterterrorism campaign against [ISIS] that combines American airpower, contributions from allies and partners, and more support to forces that are fighting these terrorists on the ground.”

However, the President’s critics in Congress blasted the White House for failing to mobilize the necessary force to confront ISIS.

“You cannot create an army to destroy [ISIS] without an American component,” said Senator Lindsey Graham during an interview on Fox News. “This is war.”

Meanwhile, ISIS posted another video over the weekend showing the third brutal execution of a Western hostage, British aid worker David Haines.

Following the release of the video, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron condemned the murder of Haines — calling ISIS the “embodiment of evil.” Cameron went on to vow to “hunt down those responsible and bring them to justice, no matter how long it takes.”

TIME Military

Putting the ISIS Threat in Perspective

A member loyal to the ISIL waves an ISIL flag in Raqqa
Reuters

This is not a well-armed fighting force, but a ragtag collection of militants using secondhand weapons

If you’re having a tough time figuring out how much of a threat the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) poses to the U.S., you’re hardly alone.

“They marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Aug. 21. “They are tremendously well-funded. Oh, this is beyond anything that we’ve seen. So we must prepare for everything.”

Secretary of State John Kerry doesn’t seem to share the Pentagon chief’s foreboding, given how ISIS fighters scattered “the minute we hit them” as they tried to take the Kurdish city of Erbil in northern Iraq. “These guys are not 10 ft. tall. They’re not as disciplined as everybody thinks,” Kerry said on Sept. 5. “They’re not as organized as everybody thinks.”

So who’s right?

To be sure, nothing grabs attention like the barbaric series of videotaped ISIS beheadings of Westerners, which continued this weekend with the release of footage of the murder of British aid worker David Haines. Such horrors generate a visceral bloodlust, and they have achieved their goal: President Obama declared last week that the U.S. military and its allies are determined to destroy ISIS.

“We have countries in this [Middle East] region, countries outside of this region, in addition to the United States, all of whom are prepared to engage in military assistance, in actual strikes, if that is what is required,” Kerry said Sunday on CBS’s Face the Nation.

There’s a parallel to al-Qaeda here. Both Sunni groups leapt to prominence only after attacking the West with its own weapons. Al-Qaeda did it with airliners; ISIS has done it with the intrepid journalists and aid workers they captured and then murdered. Their chosen tools highlight how impotent they actually are.

That became even clearer last week when the Pentagon released its first comprehensive accounting of the ISIS targets it has hit in its month-long series of more than 150 air strikes.

The single largest category — 88 of 212 individual targets, or 42% — is “armed vehicles.” Not “armored vehicles,” like a tank or personnel carrier, but civilian pickups with machine guns mounted in the rear. A pair of tanks and assorted other armor accounts for a scant 7% of the targets.

Roughly 10% are antiaircraft artillery and locations described as “IED Emplacements, Mortar Positions, [and] Machine Gun Locations.” The “facilities” on Central Command’s hit list include “Fighting Positions, Checkpoints [and] Observation Posts.”

This is not an arsenal, but a ragtag collection, including gear the U.S. supplied to the Iraqi army, which ISIS seized after driving Iraqi forces from Mosul (the U.S. has attacked 37 ISIS Humvees built in Mishawaka, Ind.).

Of course, foes don’t need huge and costly weapons to be effective. The 9/11 hijackers murdered over 3,000 armed with nothing more than $2 box cutters. But they did that by exploiting yawning vulnerabilities in commercial-aviation security. The terrorists’ caginess must be trumped by wily thinking by the U.S. and its allies, a strategy in which air strikes can only play a supporting role.

Paltry gear shouldn’t been viewed as evidence of ISIS’ inherent weakness. It is waging war on a far broader battlefield than that being attacked by U.S. warplanes. That means it cannot be defeated by military means alone. Until the underlying causes for ISIS’s rise — the anti-Sunni governments in Iraq and Syria chief among them — are dealt with, ISIS will pose a real threat to the civilized world.

But it’s also important to realize that ISIS has succeeded only where it has been unopposed. Its proclaimed state is in the middle of one of the world’s most-heavily-armed regions, and it has shown little ability or desire to challenge a motivated military force.

They say nature abhors a vacuum. So do terrorists, judging by the CIA’s assessment Thursday that ISIS has grown from 10,000 to as many as 31,500 fighters over the summer, owing in no small part to its military success. They’re eager to plant their black flags in ungoverned terrain. That the West permitted such a fertile field in which ISIS could take root — in fact, all but plowed and sowed it — is the real harvest of the Iraq War.

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