President ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaFormer Sen. Heller to run for Nevada governor Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Senate Democrats ding Biden energy proposal Business coalition aims to provide jobs to Afghan refugees MORE’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.
The White House on Monday acknowledged the seizure represents a “setback” but signaled it is unlikely to alter its approach to combatting ISIS, which relies on U.S.-led airstrikes and training Iraqi security forces to fight the ground war.
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 Sidney McCain20 years after 9/11, US foreign policy still struggles for balance What the chaos in Afghanistan can remind us about the importance of protecting democracy at home 'The View' plans series of conservative women as temporary McCain replacements 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 CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by National Industries for the Blind - Schumer: Dem unity will happen eventually; Newsom prevails The Memo: Like the dress or not, Ocasio-Cortez is driving the conversation again Ocasio-Cortez defends attendance of Met Gala amid GOP uproar 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.