US in talks over Arab boots on the ground

The U.S. and allies are discussing the possibility of deploying ground forces from Arab nations to combat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), according to a top Republican lawmaker on the House Armed Services Committee.

"At the current time there are no Arab-country forces on the ground in either Iraq or Syria. There are discussions on how to do that but right now it's the Kurds or the Peshmerga that are fighting," said Rep. Rob WittmanRob WittmanSupreme Court to review Virginia state voting districts Overnight Finance: Puerto Rico bill clears panel | IRS chief vows to finish term | Bill would require nominees to release tax returns House panel approves Puerto Rico debt relief MORE (R-Va.) in an interview Tuesday with The Hill.

ADVERTISEMENT
Wittman recently returned from a trip with fellow Republican lawmakers to Qatar, Jordan and Afghanistan, where they met with U.S. military commanders, troops and foreign leaders including Jordanian King Abdullah II, who is scheduled to visit the White House and Capitol Hill next week.

The Republican lawmaker said Abdullah spoke emphatically about the need for the fight against ISIS to be led in the region by Arab and Muslim nations, and suggested that Jordan could provide boots on the ground against ISIS.

"The Jordanians have provided air support, and they provided some assistance, but no boots directly on the ground, but I think that's the next discussion that has to take place with the United States and the coalition forces, is what is the effort on the ground look like there?" he said.

Wittman said military commanders told him the air campaign is indeed degrading ISIS's capability but that there is a need for more boots on the ground, though not necessarily U.S. forces.

"There is a sense that we need to look at a broader perspective about what is the strategy going to be to fully defeat ISIS and I think there's a strong consensus that there needs to be more than airpower," he said.

"The key though is this, you won't displace ISIS from these areas unless you have boots on the ground [to] retake those territories," he said. "Airpower has been successful, but its success is limited."

Wittman said he also spoke with U.S. military commanders on his trip about Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, who is locked in a civil war with moderate Syrian rebels the U.S. is helping fight ISIS.

The current U.S. strategy against ISIS focuses on airstrikes against the group, and training Iraqi forces and moderate Syrian rebels to go after the terror group. But the strategy avoids targeting Assad, which has alienated some rebel groups and allies in the region.  

"We've seen the Assad regime in some of these areas is able to go back in a territory ... where ISIL is weakened,” said Wittman, using an alternate name for the group.

“The question then becomes is, what does that do with our efforts with the Free Syrian Army and other moderate forces there? Does that displace them, and does that then strengthen Assad? That is certainly a question that will come up as we further degrade ISIL," he continued.

The administration's strategy on how to deal with Assad has become a flashpoint between the White House and the Pentagon. Outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel wrote a memo to national security adviser Susan Rice in October calling for a sharper focus on Assad.

The White House said in a statement Wednesday that the president would discuss with Abdullah "efforts to counter [ISIS] and find a political solution in Syria."

Wittman said dealing with Assad is something that's "obviously going to have to be part of the entire strategy and policy for the area."