ZAGREB, Croatia — The U.S. plan to step up attacks against militants in Iraq and Syria is being delayed until more Arab governments agree to contribute to the operation, the Pentagon’s top officer said Sunday.
President Barack Obama wants more specific pledges from allies to join and help pay for the military operation against militants of the Islamic State organization before he will give final approval to the Pentagon’s war plan, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told reporters traveling with him in Europe.
“The president has not yet approved the campaign plan in part because we’re not yet completed with our work of building the coalition,” especially with Arab nations, Dempsey said. “I think that would be the point at which the campaign plan would go into its next phase.”
The delay is the latest example of the stop-and-go nature of the U.S. effort against Islamic State, which has the potential to cause friction between the White House and the nation’s military leadership. Pentagon officials worry about ambivalence on Obama’s part regarding involvement in another war in Iraq, despite what the president has said is the risk that Islamic State could one day pose to the U.S.
Dempsey’s comments also point to the complexity of getting Arab nations to side publicly with the U.S. against the militant group.
Asked on CBS’s “Face the Nation” Sunday whether the U.S. had promises that other nations would join in airstrikes against Islamic State positions on the Syrian side of the border with Iraq, United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power said, “We do.” But, she added, “we’re going to leave it to other nations to announce for themselves what their specific commitments to the coalition are going to be.”
Dempsey gave the most detailed description yet of the next stage of the military operation, saying the goal was to attack Islamic State from multiple directions using airstrikes by the U.S. and its allies and ground troops from Iraq and other Arab countries. Eventually, the attacks would force the militants from towns and cities they now hold in northern and western Iraq, he said.
Obtaining contributions from allies, especially Arab governments, is considered critical to rolling back the militants in part because the White House has ruled out putting ground troops back into Iraq and has barred the 1,600 advisers and other military personnel who have been sent to the country from accompanying Iraqi and Kurdish troops on military operations.
Dempsey, who spoke to reporters after a two-day meeting of the NATO alliance in Vilnius, Lithuania, has backed the need for a broad coalition and the limits on U.S. military involvement. But he has also said he will go back to Obama and seek permission to send U.S. advisers on combat missions with Iraqi troops and take other military steps if he deems them necessary.
Since Obama’s speech this month on Iraq, the pace of U.S. airstrikes has not accelerated and there have been only limited moves by Iraqi and Kurdish troops against Islamic State fighters.
There are some indications that U.S. warplanes are hitting a wider range of targets, including boats said to be carrying supplies to fighters on the Euphrates River, a training camp and what the Pentagon described as Islamic State “ground units.” U.S. planes have also begun to strike south of Baghdad and in Anbar province west of the capital, after focusing in the first few weeks on bombing around Irbil and Mosul in the north.
If the war plan is approved, the types and locations of targets will expand further, Dempsey said, and will include attacks against the group’s leadership. The U.S. is planning on stationing EA-18 Growler warplanes in Irbil, which are capable of jamming and intercepting enemy communications, as well as carrying out airstrikes, officials said.
“With additional resources from the coalition we will be able to be persistent over a much wider area and as a result expand the targeting opportunities,” Dempsey said.
The U.S. is counting on governments in the region to participate in airstrikes, contribute to the cost of the operation and provide advisers to help train Iraqi troops and Syrian rebels.
Two major U.S. allies in the region, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have said they support the operation against Islamic State, but they have so far been ambiguous in public about how they intend to contribute, other than to assist in training Syrian rebels to take on the militants. Turkey, another key regional power with a powerful military, has also said little about whether it intends to join the fight. All three are Sunni-led countries.
U.S. officials are especially focused on getting those governments to help, believing that the participation of Sunni governments in the region would undermine Islamic State’s claim to be fighting apostates — whether Shiite Arabs, Kurds or Christians — and counter the perception that the U.S. is once again intervening in Iraq largely alone.
The Obama administration also hopes that Sunni governments will use their influence — and their money — to reach out to Sunni tribes in Iraq, many of which have joined Islamic State militants as they have swept across Iraq, either out of fear or because of disaffection with Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad.
Obama named Gen. John R. Allen, a retired Marine who was the top commander in Afghanistan and a former acting commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, to lead the effort to build support in the region. But even the State Department appeared to recognize last week that obtaining military support from many allies may be difficult, noting in a statement that international contributions “are not — and should not be — solely or even primarily military contributions.”
The administration says that more than 50 countries have contributed to the effort to combat Islamic State and that more than a dozen have participated in the military effort. But only France has joined the U.S. in carrying out airstrikes, and it has ruled out attacks in Syria. Even some stalwart allies, such as Britain, have said they do not intend to join in airstrikes in Iraq.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar have committed to helping train 5,000 Syrian rebels that the U.S. plans to arm and equip to fight the Islamic State militants over the next year. But agreeing to allow training is far easier than sending advisors to help Iraq’s army and Kurdish peshmerga fighters battle the militants, or carrying out airstrikes alongside the U.S. against fellow Sunni Arabs.
Dempsey said that he would like governments in the region to provide aerial refueling tankers and surveillance aircraft, two capabilities that Turkey, a NATO member, could provide.
Turkey has a fleet of unarmed U.S.-supplied Predator drones stationed near the border with Iraq that could supplement the U.S. drone fleet in keeping watch on the militants and be useful in going after their leadership, U.S. officials say.
Perhaps because of the strict White House limits on the size and scope of the U.S. military role, the Pentagon has continued to emphasize the need for concrete contributions from allies. The goal of the next phase of the operation will be to use airstrikes to “maintain constant pressure on (Islamic State) as we grow the Iraqi security forces, allow them to go on the offensive over time,” Dempsey said.
“We want them to wake up every day realizing that they are being squeezed from multiple directions,” he added.