Marines are prepared to fight and win a ground war with the Islamic State group inside Syria, but such an assignment would be dangerous, complicated and undesirable, the service's top general said.
Gen. Robert Neller, the Marines' commandant, discussed the subject at length Monday during an assembly with troops stationed in Okinawa, Japan.
"Could we go in there with a Marine force, into Raqqa, and pound these guys into the ground like a tent peg? Could we? Absolutely," said Gen. Robert Neller, the Marines' commandant, referring to the terror group's de facto capital in northern Syria. "Some Marines would get hurt, but we'd go kick [the Islamic State group] in the butt. No problem.
"But then the question is: 'OK, so what's next?' Who do we give it to? I don't want to stay in Raqqa. There's nothing there that I want."
Neller discussed the subject at length during an assembly with troops stationed in Okinawa, Japan. A Marine in the crowd asked him to characterize the threat posed by ISIS, as the group is also known, and how Marines' role in the conflict may evolve.
After this month's deadly terror attacks in Paris, the Obama administration pledged to intensify military action against ISIS militants in Syria and neighboring Iraq. To date, that has meant more airstrikes on ISIS positions, weapons and infrastructure, and a pledge to share more intelligence among key U.S. allies.
And while the president has shown more willingness to use some special operations troops for select missions, he has resisted calls to send large numbers of American ground troops into the fight, leery that doing so will lead to another open-ended occupation.
Today in Iraq, there are approximately 3,500 U.S. troops advising and supporting Iraqi and Kurdish forces. That includes more than 750 Marines, Neller said Monday.
Citing security concerns and "host-nation sensitivities," a Marine Corps spokesman, Maj. Brad Avots, declined to discuss specifics about their mission. A Marine task force deployed to the region includes infantry troops, Harrier attack jets, Osprey transports, refueling aircraft and a variety of logistical support, Avots said.
Some Marines are protecting the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Others are training Iraqi soldiers. Early next year, the Marines' special operations element is scheduled to assume oversight of the joint commando force quietly working to undermine ISIS throughout Iraq.
The Air Force, largely, has led the air campaign in Syria and Iraq. Last week, Marine warplanes based on Navy ships in the Persian Gulf resumed strikes inside Iraq for the first time in several weeks. Neller alluded to the mission during his remarks in Japan, listing several related questions policymakers and senior military leaders must address before deciding the war's next steps.
"Is that going to be enough to defeat these guys?" the general said. "Are the Iraqis going to be able to provide a viable ground force that's equivalent to put enough pressure on them? That remains to be seen."
The Paris attacks, which claimed 130 lives, and related terror threats throughout Europe indicate the coalition's strategy is having its desired effect within the combat zone. It's a sign, he said, that ISIS "is going to start to crack."
"My sense," Neller said, "is they did these things in Europe to try to distract attention from what's happening to them in Syria because they're getting pounded into the ground by airstrikes. So they had to take the pressure off."
Neller, who despite his sharp rhetoric is soft-spoken with a measured delivery, called ISIS a "threat to the homeland," terrorists who have "hijacked a religion." He predicated that, in the weeks to come, Washington will increase pressure on regional partners and other key stakeholders to take a more active role in the fight, with the U.S. continuing to provide support.
Within hours of Neller's remarks in Japan, the White House saidthat the military may be asked to expand its air campaign and provide additional training and assistance to the Iraqis, as well as select rebel groups inside Syria who oppose Syrian President Bashar Assad. Beyond that
the U.S. is "pulling more than our weight," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters. "And," he said, "we believe that there is more that can be done if countries are willing to contribute additional resources."
Obama and French President Francois Hollande met at the White House on Tuesday to discuss renewed efforts to defeat ISIS. In a press conference following the meeting, Obama said the terror group must be destroyed and vowed to stand with France following the attack there.
For the Marines, Neller said, the tenuous situation in the Middle East underscores a need to be ready for anything.
"We'll see," the general said. "At the end of the day, if we get called to go, we'll go."