Obama insists ground troops will not join ISIS fight, US military less sure

US President Barack Obama.(AFP Photo / Mandel Ngan)
US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry continue to insist that American ground troops will not be involved in the fight against Islamic State militants – a pledge that has been called into question by US Army generals.

The debate over the use of ground troops comes as the House of Representatives voted to authorize the arming and training of Syrian rebels. The move is said to be aimed at fighting Islamic State extremists in the country.

Speaking to American service members on Wednesday, President Obama once again stated he will not authorize the use of ground forces in Iraq, and that even those already in the country will not have combat responsibilities.

“I want to be clear: The American forces that have been deployed to Iraq do not and won’t have a combat mission,” he said, as quoted by The Wall Street Journal.“As your commander in chief, I won’t commit you and the rest of our armed forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq.”

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The sentiments were echoed by Kerry during a Wednesday hearing with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“US ground troops will not be sent into combat in this conflict,” he said while testifying. “Instead, they will support Iraq forces on the ground as they fight for their country.”

However, those apparently clear assertions are notably different from comments made by Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who testified before the Senate on Tuesday.

Dempsey said that should Obama’s current strategy not yield the desired results, he would recommend deploying American troops on the ground.

He also noted that the president has said to “come back to him on a case-by-case basis.”

Dempsey agreed with Obama's judgment that ground troops are unnecessary. “But if it fails to be true, and if there are threats to the US, then I of course would go back to the president and make a recommendation that may include the use of US military ground forces,” he said.

Meanwhile, Gen. Ray Odierno – who was one of the lead architects of the so-called troop “surge” in Iraq circa 2007 – said on Wednesday that to defeat the Islamic State, ground troops will be necessary. He did not, however, specify whether US troops will be needed, The New York Times reported.

“You’ve got to have ground forces that are capable of going in and rooting them out,” he said, referring to the hardline militants. The airstrikes, though they have halted the group’s advances, “will not be the end all and be all solution in Iraq,” he added.

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates – who served during the terms of former President George W. Bush as well as Obama – went even further, saying that without US combat troops in action, the American coalition against the extremist group will not be successful.

“The reality is, they’re not gonna be able to be successful against ISIS strictly from the air, or strictly depending on the Iraqi forces, or the Peshmerga, or the Sunni tribes acting on their own,” Gates told CBS This Morning. “So there will be boots on the ground if there’s to be any hope of success in the strategy. And I think that by continuing to repeat that [the U.S. won’t put boots on the ground], the president, in effect, traps himself.”

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The comments – from Odierno and Gates, as well as Obama and Kerry – were all made in the hours before the House voted on an amendment to arm Syrian rebels. The proposal passed easily by a vote of 273-156, though more Democrats (85) voted against the measure than Republicans (71).

Its passage comes as the idea has gained some notable critics in the Senate, including Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va). During Wednesday’s hearing, McCain raised concern over the idea that Syrian rebels who consider the government of Bashar Assad their primary enemy will turn around and agree to fight Islamic State militants first – especially if they are pounded by Assad from the air. McCain suggested “neutralizing” Assad’s air capabilities and asked Kerry if he sees the opposition as “viable.”

The Syrian opposition is “viable enough” to survive in “difficult circumstances,” Kerry said, before noting that “they still have some distance to go.”