The Obama administration struggled Wednesday to explain how its strategy to defeat Islamic State militants will play out in Iraq and Syria as President Barack Obama underscored that no American ground combat forces will be deployed in the fight.
Obama used a visit to MacDill Air Force Base in Florida to renew his pledge to commit no US ground forces against the militants.
"As your commander in chief, I will not commit you and the rest of our armed forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq," Obama said. He spoke one day after his chief military adviser said he would recommend US ground forces if the military situation deteriorated to the point where that step was prudent.
The Islamic State has had a stunning rise in recent months, taking advantage of a civil war in Syria and sectarian division in Iraq to lay claim to large areas of both countries. It now stands as the most active and potent terrorist threat in the Middle East and as a potential threat to US allies and partners there, as well as in Turkey and Europe.
"After a decade of massive ground deployments, it is more effective to use our unique capabilities in support of partners on the ground so they can secure their own countries' futures," Obama said.
Secretary of State John Kerry faced sceptical Senate questioning about the emerging American military strategy, which is premised on expanding the training and arming of moderate Syrian rebels to carry out the ground fight in Syria while Iraqi army forces and Kurdish defence forces do that job in Iraq.
The administration's strategy is "unserious" and flies in the face of its own oft-stated doubts about the trustworthiness and military abilities of Syrian irregulars, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., told Kerry.
The administration considers the rebels "feckless," Corker said at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, and yet "that's our entire ground game."
"I'm surprised that the administration is basing their entire ground game on a group of people that candidly are going to receive very little training under the small authorisation that's been put forth," Corker continued.
The House on Wednesday voted to grant Obama new authority to train and arm moderate Syrian rebels, and the Senate is expected to vote on the request within days.
Relying on the rebels to fight the militants ignores their own priorities, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., added in exasperation. McCain and other senators said the rebels formed to fight Syrian President Bashar Assad and will continue to fight him, presumably using the better equipment and training provided by the United States.
"ISIL first — that's our policy," said Kerry, using an acronym for the Islamic State. He did not dispute that the rebels might not share that view.
Republicans and Democrats both warned Kerry that the administration risks losing congressional and public support for military action if it proceeds without a full review by Congress. The White House says it already has the legal authorisation it needs.
"It is my belief that Congress will need to approve an ISIL-specific authorisation for the use of military force," Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, told Kerry.
"I am personally not comfortable" basing the current military operation on the 2001 or 2002 congressional authorisations for action against al-Qaida and in Iraq, Menendez said. He said the White House is using a "thin theory" that the Islamic State is associated with al-Qaida.
The Islamic State grew out of an al-Qaida affiliate in Iraq but was disowned by the older terrorism franchise this year and operates independently.
Also Wednesday, top US officials said the number of foreign fighters flowing into Syria has increased significantly, providing an ample recruiting pool for the Islamic State.
Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, estimated the number to be more than 15,000. US officials said this month the figure was about 12,000.
Olsen, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and FBI Director James Comey appeared before Congress to address threats to the country.
Olsen called the Islamic State "extremely dangerous" and said it views itself as the leader of the global jihad movement. The Islamic State is a "multifaceted threat to the United States," he said. The threat is "most acute" in Iraq.
Meanwhile, the Islamic State released a video Tuesday warning that its fighters are waiting in Iraq if Obama sends troops there, the Associated Press reported.
The slick 52-second video, titled "Flames of War," shows militants blowing up tanks and images of wounded US soldiers.
The video's timing Tuesday suggested it was a response to Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee that if the airstrike strategy does not prevail, he may recommend the use of ground troops.
Anne Gearan – The Washington Post
Washington Post staff writers Adam Goldman and Ed O'Keefe contributed to this report.
Image: Mandel Ngan / AFP / Lehtikuva