President Barack Obama has ruled out the use of American ground troops in Iraq and Syria. Period.
The president has said on multiple occasions, including during his prime time address to the nation last week, that the campaign to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria would in no way resemble the Iraq War. America, the administration has insisted, would lead a coalition of nations that will execute airstrikes on ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria while “indigenous” forces (read: local militias) serve as the “boots on the ground.”
During a Senate committee hearing on the strategy to combat ISIS on Tuesday, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey noted that there are circumstances which could force him to recommend that the president reconsider his objection to U.S. ground troops serving in a combat role in Iraq. Those conditions, moreover, seem likely to materialize.
“My view at this point is that this coalition is the appropriate way forward,” Dempsey said when asked about the condition which might force U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq. “I believe that will prove true, but if it fails to be through and there are threats to the United States, I would go back to the president and make a recommendation that may include the use of military ground forces.”
Dempsey made even more candid comments about the possibility of U.S. ground forces returning to combat later in the hearing:
In the case of our contributions in Iraq right now, the airmen, as the ranking member mentioned, are very much in a combat role. The folks on the ground are very much in a combat advisory role. They are not participating in direct combat. There’s no intention for them do so.
I’ve mentioned, though, if I found that circumstance evolving that I would, of course, change my recommendation. An example: If the Iraqi security forces and the [Kurdish Peshmerga] 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.
But, for the day-to-day activities I anticipate will evolve over time, I don’t see it to be necessary right now.
Reporters immediately picked up on this concession regarding the use of ground forces in a combat role in the Middle East:
— Jim Sciutto (@jimsciutto) September 16, 2014
Dempsey says role of U.S. forces on the ground in Iraq currently in a non-combat role could change if the situation deteriorates.
— Walt Cronkite (@WCronkite) September 16, 2014
Joint chiefs chair Dempsey: If Arab coalition against #ISIS fails, I would go back to the president and recommend US ground troops.
— Todd Zwillich (@toddzwillich) September 16, 2014
It sounds as though the circumstances which might lead Gen. Dempsey to recommend combat forces return to Iraq are not merely likely but imminent. As of today, local forces are not expected to be able to secure the Haditha Dam in perpetuity, and they are certainly incapable of retaking the massive city of Mosul. It seems that the mission to destroy ISIS in Iraq, as defined by this administration, cannot be accomplished on their own terms without the introduction of U.S. combat forces.
As a matter of semantics, American combat “advisors” working alongside “indigenous” forces encounter fire and return fire, they will be engaged in combat operations.
Following Dempsey’s comments, the administration immediately sent out a statement reaffirming their political commitment to avoid committing U.S. ground troops engage in combat against ISIS. So even if Americans engage in combat, they will not be serving in a combat role. That’s clarifying.