After years of pulling back from the Middle East, the Obama administration’s new plan to use elite American ground troops to combat ISIL is meeting with scepticism among analysts and US lawmakers.
Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced on Tuesday the US may soon intensify air strikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in Raqqa and Ramadi, and begin to use special forces on specific missions.
Separately, Secretary of State John Kerry informed US lawmakers behind closed doors in Washington on negotiations with Russia and Iran to begin on Thursday in Vienna. Germany, France, the UK, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Turkey will also participate.
Recent events have prodded President Barack Obama, nearing the last year of his presidency, to confront challenges in the Middle East with greater force. Whether the new willingness by Obama to take on greater risk will be too little, too late, remains to be seen.
“We are in a dramatic free-fall situation in the Middle East,” said James F Jeffrey, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former envoy to Iraq under former President George W Bush’s administration.
“The president is beginning to realise that. He’s beginning to take some steps. My hope is that these guys are finally waking up.”
The US was forced to acknowledge recently that the Pentagon’s $500m train-and-equip programme for Syrian rebels was failing. The speed and scope of the Russian military intervention in Syria surprised the Obama administration, and has accelerated the flow of refugees to Europe. Russian air strikes so far have largely targeted CIA-trained and equipped Syrian rebels.
In northern Iraq, an elite Delta Force unit was recently deployed with Kurdish troops to free hostages from an ISIL prison. When the Kurds encountered heavy fire, US soldiers engaged to salvage the mission resulting in an American being killed in action.
After a Pentagon re-evaluation, Carter summarised the new US strategy as focused on “the three Rs: Raqqa, Ramadi and raids”.
In Syria, that means the US is providing equipment and air strikes to support a recently formed Syrian-Arab coalition that is advancing against ISIL near its capital in Raqqa.
In Iraq, the US will support Iraqi forces advancing on Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, in hopes of building momentum to eventually go forward to retake the larger city of Mosul from ISIL, Carter said.
Raids simply mean US special forces will not hold back in supporting partners in opportunistic strikes against ISIL, the defence secretary said.
This new, more assertive military posture met with scepticism and anger from US lawmakers who have not yet been informed by Pentagon officials on specifics.
“None of us have been briefed. There is a disconnect now between Congress and the administration that is very disturbing,” Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told Al Jazeera.
Instead, McCain said, the Obama administration’s plan to “step it up a little bit” while still keeping a tight rein of operational control in Washington “is reminiscent of Vietnam”, the war the US lost in 1975. A decorated Vietnam veteran, McCain spent more than five years as a prisoner of war.
The US plan stops short of implementing a no-fly zone to protect civilians, a step advocated by former General David Petraeus and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
“We don’t have a concept of operations for a no-fly zone that we are prepared to recommend,” Carter said.
General Joe Dunford, the top US general who recently travelled to Iraq, said what the military campaign is designed to do is provide leverage for a political settlement of the Syrian conflict.
“We are not going to do a damn thing,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican. “This is a half-assed strategy at best.”
Criticism also came from the president’s own party. “We seem lost, confused about what to do next, unable to put any marker down, or have a plan for success,” Senator Joe Donnelly, a Democrat, said.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration appears to have few, if any answers to the rising violence between Israelis and Palestinians.
Kerry met separately in Berlin with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and in Amman with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Jordan’s King Abdullah. Kerry urged both sides to tone down their rhetoric and the parties discussed steps to ease tension at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem.
“The reality is that you have a problem whose underlying causes cannot, or simply will not be addressed by a weak Palestinian Authority or an Israeli prime minister who is not interested,” said Aaron David Miller, a scholar at the Wilson Center and a former state department policy adviser on the Middle East.
“I don’t think the administration can do much,” Miller told Al Jazeera.
Obama is scheduled to host Netanyahu in Washington on November 9. Announced by the White House in September – before the recent outbreak of stabbings and shootings in Israel – the meeting’s agenda is designed to repair the US-Israel relationship after the bitter division between Netanyahu and Obama over the Iran nuclear deal.
“Now it’s time to reassure the Israelis over the Iran piece of this and work to make sure that intelligence is being shared and both countries are aware of potential Iranian violations,” Miller said.
Key to the US effort in Syria and Iraq will be the upcoming talks in Vienna.
Kerry told lawmakers in a private meeting yesterday that the US side believes participation of Russia and Iran – key allies of the Assad regime – will give the negotiators leverage over the Syrian government, senators said.
The US plans to demand an immediate end to the devastating use of barrel bombs by Assad’s forces on Syrian civilians, which has caused massive damage in cities and villages triggering much of the refugee flight.
Importantly, the US and Russia agree that Assad cannot remain in power, Kerry said, according to people who heard him speak.
“There was a common understanding as to what is necessary – and clearly the future of Syria does not include Assad,” Senator Ben Cardin told Al Jazeera. “The Russians know there has to be a transition.” Al Jazeera