President Obama’s strategy in fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is facing fresh scrutiny after the militant group toppled government forces in the major Iraqi city of Ramadi.
The city’s fall represented the biggest military gain for ISIS this year.
Pro-government troops fled Ramadi as ISIS fighters flooded the city, raising doubts about their ability to sustain gains as they try to retake territory.
“There are two clocks ticking here: We know the tide isn’t necessarily going to turn until the Iraqi forces get their act together and regain ground against ISIS,” said Janine Davidson, senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. “They are digging themselves out of a very big hole. While we wait for progress on that front, ISIS continues to take ground.”
Republican national security hawks have used the fall of Ramadi to pressure the White House to step up its response to the group. Some, such as Sen. John McCainJohn McCainMcCain downplays threat of preemptive strike against North Korea McCain plan gains momentum amid North Korea threats Sunday shows preview: Trump plans next steps MORE (R-Ariz.), have advocated for more U.S. troops on the ground.
The White House wants to avoid being drawn into another war in Iraq, however, and even some GOP critics are wary of expanding the use of U.S. ground troops.
Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzTrump in campaign mode at NRA convention Trump’s hands are tied on 9th Circuit Schumer: Trump's handling of North Korea 'all wrong' MORE (R-Texas), a 2016 presidential candidate, said in February that he wouldn’t put American boots on the ground and would instead focus on arming and training Kurdish peshmerga fighters.
The Obama administration has sought to downplay the significance of ISIS gains in Ramadi, saying that the battle is far from over.
“There is no denying that this is indeed a setback,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz told reporters Monday aboard Air Force One. “But there is also no denying we will help the Iraqis take back Ramadi.”
The Pentagon said there have been 65 airstrikes in and around Ramadi over the past month. That includes eight in the past 24 hours, according to Schultz, who said the strikes will continue until Ramadi is retaken.
“Iraqi forces have the capacity to ultimately take Ramadi with coalition support,” he said.
One day before Ramadi fell, the White House touted a U.S. special operation forces raid in Syria that killed a senior ISIS commander as a significant blow against the group.
The Pentagon said the U.S. strategy against ISIS is working, despite the Iraqi government’s controversial decision to accept help from Iranian-backed Shiite militias.
But there are signs the public has become increasingly worried about ISIS’s gains in Iraq and Syria.
A March CNN poll showed 8 in 10 Americans believe ISIS poses a serious threat to the U.S., up from 63 percent last September. Just over half believe the U.S. strategy to defeat the group will succeed.
Even members of Obama’s party say the loss of Ramadi should be cause for alarm.
“The loss of Ramadi is a serious setback after important gains for the Iraqi forces in Tikrit and elsewhere,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
Experts say the administration must weigh how many more battlefield victories by ISIS it can sustain before it takes additional steps, such as increasing operational support to Iraqi forces on the ground.
“How much do you let ISIS continue to take ground having faith” it will be gained back, said Davidson. “Is there a point at which you say, ‘We’ve got to stop this now with more than airpower?’ ”
— Updated at 8:34 p.m.