President Obama said Friday that he has asked his national security team to draw up military options for countering the growing threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which seized two Iraqi cities this week and is threatening an assault on Baghdad. They won't be able to give him a very long list.
The White House has ruled out sending American troops back to Iraq, and the CIA pulled many of its operatives out of the country shortly after the last U.S. forces left Iraq in December 2011. That means the administration will almost certainly have to rely solely on airpower -- and hope that the Pentagon will be able to hit ISIS hard enough to halt its advance toward Baghdad and begin evicting the militants from the territory they already control.
In brief remarks on the South Lawn of the White House, Obama said that ISIS had made "significant gains" in the the past several days and that Iraqi security forces had proven unable to defend some cities. "This poses a danger to Iraq and its people. And given the nature of these terrorists, it could pose a threat eventually to American interests as well," Obama said.
Obama didn't announce any movements of troops or military equipment toward Iraq, but CNN reported that he has ordered the aircraft carrier George H. W. Bush into the Persian Gulf. The administration and the Pentagon have refused to confirm or deny those reports. A senior U.S. intelligence official told Foreign Policy that the United States had ramped up its collection of satellite imagery from Iraq, which would be crucial for pinpointing ISIS fighters. The president, in his remarks at the White House, said he would ensure the intelligence community had provided him with enough information that "if, in fact, I do direct and order any actions there, that they're targeted, they're precise, and they're going to have an effect."
If Obama greenlights a military intervention into Iraq, he will have a range of aircraft, guided missiles, and unmanned drones at his disposal. In addition to the warplanes that can be launched from an aircraft carrier, the constellation of smaller ships that travel with it usually include ships that can fire up to 100 Tomahawk cruise missiles, said Christopher Harmer, a former Navy officer and an analyst with the Institute for the Study of War. Those missiles can be guided in the air, making them a potentially useful weapon for hitting quick-moving ISIS fighters.
But if those fighters are holing up in Iraqi cities and and hiding out among civilians, any strikes could carry a high risk of collateral damage. Harmer said that for air strikes to do any significant damage to ISIS forces without risking innocent Iraqis, the United States would have to attack when the fighters are moving along public roads. But even then, it could be hard for military targeters to distinguish ISIS's vehicles from those of ordinary Iraqi civilians. ISIS fighters tend to move around in pickup trucks, and have sneaked across Syria's border with Iraq in small numbers -- sometimes fewer than six people at a time -- making them exceptionally difficult for intelligence agencies to track and the military to target.
"All the things that are easy for the U.S. to hit," in terms of traditional military targets like tanks or artillery batteries, "ISIS doesn't use those," Harmer said. "U.S. strike options are going to get very limited unless we strike ISIS when they're out in the open."
The Pentagon had great success in the Iraq War tracking down small bands of fighters and insurgents. But that was when tens of thousands of troops were on the ground, bolstered by elite military commandos, intelligence analysts who could monitor fighters' communications, and a constant stream of data from reconnaissance drones and other aircraft hovering in the skies above the country. That extensive intelligence network is no longer active in Iraq, though officials have said they are collecting more information from satellites and reconnaissance aircraft in an effort to share information about ISIS forces with the Iraqis.
If Obama ordered airstrikes from land-based aircraft, he'd have a wider menu of weapons to choose from. The U.S. operates a constellation of air bases and other facilities in Turkey, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, and warplanes ranging from the Air Force's next-generation F-22 to workhorses like the F-15 and F-16 can be flown out from them. The U.S. would need to get permission from those countries to launch air strikes against Iraq, and the military would have to secure overflight rights to conduct missions. But the most important permissions would have to come from the Iraqis, and they would be easy to get. The Iraqi government has been pleading with the U.S. to conduct air strikes against jihadists, and any new U.S. attacks would presumably come with the permission of the Iraqi government to use their air bases, said retired Air Force. Lt. Gen. David Deptula, who was the principal attack planner for the Desert Storm air campaign in Iraq in 1991 and also orchestrated air strikes in Afghanistan in 2001.
Deptula argued that Obama's military options might not be as restricted as they appear. ISIS fighters move about in small groups, but when they attack a city, they have to gather in larger numbers, making them easier to attack. "It wasn't a couple of six-man teams that overthrew Mosul," Deptula said, referring to Iraq's second largest city, which ISIS took over earlier this week.
Still, the long-term prospects for repelling ISIS entirely seem dim, particularly given the group's stronghold in neighboring Syria, where it gathered strength amid a brutal civil war before spilling over into Iraq.
"We're probably looking at a de facto enclave run by ISIS in large parts of Iraq," said Thomas Henriksen, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution who studies terrorist groups and insurgencies. "I think the real concern is that these will serve as bases for terrorist attacks upon our allies in the region or even the United States. It's almost inevitable that these groups will turn their interests towards the West once they consolidated power."