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Published: Friday, 8/29/2014


Boots on the ground


After years of downplaying the gathering threat from Islamist extremists in Syria and Iraq, the Obama Administration seems to be accepting the view that the self-styled Islamic State must be stopped. This appreciation is welcome, if it is shared by the President and accompanied by a seriousness of purpose.

Earlier this year, Mr. Obama dismissed al-Qaeda offshoots as the junior varsity of terrorism and promised Americans that the tide of war was receding. Now Secretary of State John Kerry calls the Islamic State an “evil” that must “be destroyed.”

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says it is “sophisticated and well-funded ... beyond anything that we’ve seen.” Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says it “will eventually have to be defeated.”

When Mr. Obama was urged to support the moderate opposition in Syria three years ago, one reason given was that a failure to do so would leave an opening for more-radical factions that eventually would spill out of Syria and threaten the region. The longer the President waited, the more the need for action would become obvious — but the more unappetizing his options would be.

The Islamic State is well-funded, with steady revenue from oil fields it has captured and from ransom payments. It is well-armed, including with captured U.S. weaponry. It is highly ambitious.

No serious approach to the group can focus only on Iraq, as the United States has done thus far. Extremists treat Iraq and Syria as one area of operations, and the United States must do the same.

In that theater, as Mr. Obama has said, the United States must find partners: Kurds in Iraq and Syria, Sunni tribal leaders in Iraq, the Iraqi government if it can become more inclusive, and what is left of the Free Syrian Army.

Aiding them does not require a U.S. invasion, but it will need boots on the ground, as Mr. Obama has acknowledged by sending nearly 1,000 special forces back to Iraq. They will be needed for training, to assist in air targeting, and perhaps more.

The United States suffers from persistent intelligence gaps in Syria. These can be filled only with a human presence in the region, not by drones or satellite technology alone.

If Mr. Obama formulates a coherent goal and a strategy to achieve it, and explains both to Americans, he will have a reasonable chance of winning congressional authorization, which he should seek. The options are unappetizing, but the longer the United States waits — and the more firmly the barbarous Islamic State ensconces itself — the worse they will become.

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