The United States has expanded its airstrikes against Islamic State (IS) terrorist group targets, near Baghdad. On Tuesday, September 16, lawmakers began debating the issue of providing military assistance to rebels opposed to both IS militants and Syria’s government.
Less than a week after President Obama pledged a multi-step campaign to “degrade and destroy” IS terrorists, U.S. attack and fighter aircraft were used Sunday and Monday beyond humanitarian missions and for protecting American personnel deployed there.
In total, the strikes destroyed six vehicles near Sinjar and an IS fighting position southwest of Baghdad that was firing on Iraqi personnel, the military said in a statement. All U.S. aircraft exited the strike areas safely.
"The airstrike southwest of Baghdad was the first strike taken as part of our expanded efforts beyond protecting our own people and humanitarian missions to hit IS targets as Iraqi forces go on offense, as outlined in the President's speech last Wednesday,'' the U.S. Central Command's statement said.
No U.S. forces on ground called in the air strike, officials said.
The strikes were described as the first to provide direct aid for Iraqi forces fighting the Islamic militant group, as previous actions were conducted to protect U.S. personnel and interests. Iraqi forces requested assistance when they came under fire from militants.
Since air strikes began last month, the attacks had been centered on Islamic State fighters in northern Iraq, near dams at Mosul and Haditha and to protect refugees stranded on Mount Sinjar.
Secretary of State John Kerry met Monday in Paris with diplomatic leaders from more than a dozen countries as the administration tries to round up allies to help battle the terrorists.
U.S. forces have carried out a total of 162 airstrikes across Iraq, the military said.
The CIA estimates Islamic State has access to 20,000 and 31,500 fighters in Iraq and Syria.
About 30 countries have pledged to join the United States in fighting against IS terrorists who have taken over parts of Iraq and Syria, carried out atrocities against religious minorities, and beheaded three Western hostages. The United States is working to build an international coalition that would include airstrikes, ground forces, and cutting off funding for the terrorists.
In Paris, where other nations were pledging support, Kerry said the United States was open to talks with Iran about a role but ruled out military coordination.
"That doesn't mean that we are opposed to the idea of communicating to find out if they will come on board, or under what circumstances, or whether there is the possibility of a change," Kerry told reporters.
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Monday that he had rejected U.S. overtures to join a coalition against the Islamic State extremists because Americans have "evil intentions and dirty hands."
Khamenei, speaking to reporters upon his release from a Tehran hospital after prostate surgery, said Washington's aim in building up an international group to fight in Iraq and Syria is to create "a playground where they can enter freely and bomb at will."
Iran opposes the Islamic State but is wary of working with the United States to oppose it. The U.S., in turn, has said it will not coordinate militarily with Iran in the fight against the Islamic State militants.
NATO member and US ally Turkey has, thus far, declined so far to join the coalition, despite visits by Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to persuade Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to join the ten Arab states lined up against IS.
While Turkey says it is tightening its border access to Syria, the most common way for foreign fighters to join IS, Erdogan’s relationship with other Syrian opposition groups, including Islamist terror groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda-linked group, betrays a more complex approach to the threat of IS in Syria and Iraq.
"[The IS threat] is global, so the response must be global,” said Hollande, who has expressed his support for the new Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. “Iraq's fight against the terrorists is also our fight. We must commit ourselves together - that is the purpose of this conference."
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told France Inter radio the cost of inaction against IS “would be to say to these butchers, ‘Go ahead, you have a free pass.’ We won’t accept that.”
RAND Corporation senior political scientist Rick Brennan, a career U.S. Army officer, said it is difficult to conduct close air support operations absent U.S. forces embedded with Iraqi units.
"There is currently no plan to provide the type of close air support that would be necessary without having U.S. special operations forces, or other people, engaged in providing the air-to-ground integration effort. Now, some of those can be done, as it was done on the dam near Mosul if you see large columns, or pieces of equipment, that are clearly in the possession of ISIS. Those are easily observed from the air and can be attacked. Absent those easy targets, it would be very difficult to integrate air and ground [forces] without having U.S. boots on the ground embedded in combat forces of the coalition," said Brennan.
Obama, who will be briefed Wednesday by defense officials at U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Florida, has also authorized potential airstrikes against IS targets in Syria. He has ruled out, however, working with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against the IS group, which is fighting to topple him. Washington regards Assad as an illegitimate leader and a criminal.
Monday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest was asked if the president is prepared to take out Syrian defenses should U.S. aircraft be ordered to attack IS targets inside Syria.
"There are rules of engagement any time that our men and women in uniform are put into harm’s way, and so there will be rules of engagement that are related to any military orders that the president directs, military actions that the president directs. But, it won’t surprise you to know that there are contingencies related to self-defense when it comes to these sorts of rules of engagement," responded Earnest.
Senior U.S. officials said Monday Syrian air defenses would face retaliation if Damascus attempted to respond to U.S. airstrikes against IS targets. Brennan said he has no doubt such airstrikes will be launched inside Syria:
"The air packages that would be going into Syria will not only have the ability to target forces on the ground, but also be able to have platforms that could sense and respond to any kind of anti-air capabilities, so that part is clear. The harder part, I think, is going to be when the president tries to stand up capabilities with the Free Syrian Army, an army that, at this point, is virtually non-existent. This will take most likely years to develop into a capable force that’s not only capable of confronting ISIS and, potentially, the al-Nusra Front, but it will have to be able to deal with other organizations, such as the Iranian-backed militia and the Lebanese Hezbollah, which oppose them, and the Assad regime," said Brennan.
In Washington Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives began debate on legislation to give congressional approval for arming and training rebels opposed to both IS and the Syrian government. The move was welcomed by White House spokesman Earnest.
"We’ve seen public statements from Democrats and Republicans in senior positions both in the House and the Senate indicate they support giving the administration the necessary authority to ramp up our assistance to the Syrian opposition by training and equipping them. So, we’re gratified by that show of bipartisan public support for this urgent priority," said Earnest.
He said the goal is to ensure that there is a fighting force on the ground in Syria that can take the fight to IS militants given that the president has ruled out the use of American combat troops for that purpose.
Brennan said differentiating friend from foe in Syria and providing training and arms to the right groups could be a difficult process, as it has been in Afghanistan.