The United States is looking for new ways to help defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as the group wields increasing power in the region. For example, the State Department said on Thursday, the U.S. will deliver 1,000 anti-tank weapons to Iraq in the coming weeks to combat suicide bombings and other attacks by ISIL fighters.
Al Jazeera’s Jamie McIntyre reports that the U.S. is debating whether to send joint tactical air controllers, highly trained specialists who work alongside combat troops on the ground, using laser designators and GPS to call in direct strikes with pinpoint accuracy.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey has stopped short of recommending the tactical air controllers, however, because of the risk of more American casualties, and because it would shift the U.S. role from one of advising and assisting to a ground combat role.
Iraqi forces backed by Shia militias say they have made gains against ISIL recently by recapturing key parts of the northern oil refinery town of Beiji. Government and ISIL forces have been fighting for control of the town and its resources.
Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken said this week that coalition forces have killed about 10,000 ISIL fighters in Iraq and Syria since the coalition airstrikes began.
During Al Jazeera America's Sunday night segment The Week Ahead, Del Walters spoke to Larry Korb, a former assistant U.S. secretary of defense, and to Harleen Gambhir, a counterterrorism analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. Both guests joined the discussion from Washington.
Gambhir said that “casualty estimates aren’t equivalent to measures of strategic success. While we’ve seen U.S.-led coalition airstrikes have succeeded in hitting ISIL fighters and installations, the group is still growing in numbers each and every month.”
Gambhir said she expects a major offensive by ISIL later this month to mark the first anniversary of the group’s declaring itself a caliphate. “We’re actually seeing indications of a new strategic phase for ISIL in Syria," she said. "It’s gained the city of Palmyra, which is in the center of the country, and may start to move towards the Syrian central corridor.”
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a 2016 presidential candidate, has said “ISIL exists and grew stronger because of the hawks in our party who gave arms indiscriminately, and most of those arms were snatched up by ISIL. These hawks also wanted to bomb [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad, which would have made ISIL’s job even easier. They created these people.”
Korb said he agrees with Paul’s statement. “Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which was the forerunner of ISIL, didn’t exist until we went in there. Our going into Iraq in 2003 was one of the greatest strategic blunders in the history of the United States. Not only has it created ISIL, it’s empowered Iran.”
Iraq was invaded twice by the United States. The first Gulf War, in 1991, involving a global coalition, was known as Operation Desert Storm. The second Gulf War, dubbed Operation Iraqi Freedom by President George W. Bush, was conducted by a smaller coalition in 2003 and was met by mass protests around the world.
Korb said ISIL is a group taking advantage of what’s happening in the Middle East, including the Arab Spring, adding that “even though we’ve supposedly killed 10,000 of them, the fact of the matter is that they’re getting recruits from all over the world.”
Gambhir said that in order to resolve the conflict, “we need both a military and a political solution. We need to empower the Iraqi security forces and empower moderate rebels on the ground in Syria. Right now we’re just focusing on Iraq and just focusing on military means.”