The Pentagon Is Gearing Up For a Ground War Against ISIS

It’s not a matter of if, but when.

Do you remember when President Obama said, “I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria”? It was September 2013, and the commander-in-chief was attempting to pacify fears that our country was getting sucked into another ground war in the Middle East as he considered launching targeted strikes against the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons.

Those strikes never happened. But those boots on the ground did. Last month, 50 American commandos were ordered to northern Syria to back Kurdish soldiers fighting the Islamic State. On Tuesday morning, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced during a hearing before the House Armed Services Committee, that more will be on their way.

“To build on that momentum, we’re sending, on President Obama’s orders and the chairman’s and my advice, special operations personnel to Syria to support the fight against ISIL,” he said. “American special operators bring a unique suite of capabilities that make them force multipliers. They will help us garner valuable ground intelligence, further enhance our air campaign, and above all enable local forces that regain and then hold territory occupied by ISIL. Where we find further opportunity to leverage such capability, we are prepared to expand it.” 

Regaining ground might be the easy part. Last month, Kurdish peshmerga forces swiftly drove ISIS from the embattled village of Sinjar in northern Iraq with the help of American airstrikes. But, as we’ve already witnessed in places like Ramadi and Fallujah during the height of the Iraq War, holding ground in the aftermath of such an offensive requires much more than a few good men. The commandos in Syria will need support, and there’s a chance that support could come in the form of regular infantry units charged with holding the ground they take. The last U.S. combat troops left Iraq in 2011; now, they could return to ensure liberated cities across the region don’t become terrorist strongholds after they leave.

This news comes after Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham called for a 20,000-strong troop deployment across Iraq and Syria to fight ISIS. Rep. Mac Thornberry, the Texas Republican who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, told USA Today that he fully supports ramping up ground operations in Iraq and Syria to degrade and destroy the Islamic State.

“Send however many guys or assemble whatever coalition is necessary to accomplish that goal,” he said. “Fifty guys to be deployed is not going to turn the tide of this battle.” 

We’ve come a long way since September 2013.