Rhetoric vs. Reality: 5 Myths About Obama's ISIS Plan Debunked

ABC News separates the rhetoric vs. reality in the president's plan.

ByABC News
September 18, 2014, 5:46 PM

— -- It's been a pivotal week on the international stage, particularly when it comes to President Obama's plan to "degrade, and ultimately destroy" ISIS, the militant group that is sowing terror across Iraq. But the details of the plan can be confusing.

So, ABC News Pentagon reporter Luis Martinez and Digital Correspondent Devin Dwyer, who covers the White House, have tackled five key points about the plan to help you sort rhetoric from reality.

1. RHETORIC: There will be no U.S. ground troops in Iraq.

REALITY: It may be a far cry from the Iraq War -- when 160,000 American service members surged into Iraq –- but within several weeks, the U.S. will have nearly 1,700 boots on the ground in that country. And more could be on the way.

So far, many of these U.S. forces have been assigned to protect the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and other American facilities there. Plans call for more than 200 to work as “advisers” in 15 teams that will be paired up with Iraqi Army brigades and divisions at the headquarters level. They are not allowed to serve with those units in battlefield positions. But Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, opened the door to that possibility earlier this week when he told Congress that he might recommend that option to the president if needed.

The White House later explained that any advisers who might end up serving with these units as forward air controllers would not be considered to be combat troops. The White House has made the point that this new military in operation will not be like the war that began in 2003 -- in other words, there will be no massive deployment of ground troops in Iraq. Period. President Obama has also ruled out any American military trainers on the ground inside Syria.

2. RHETORIC: U.S. troops in Iraq will not see combat up close.

REALITY: President Obama said U.S. troops in Iraq “will not and do not have a combat mission” in Iraq. But that doesn't necessarily mean they won’t see combat or find themselves in dangerous situations.

U.S. fighter pilots are flying missions in support of Iraqi Security Forces on the ground –- air combat missions which carry inherent risk. Earlier this month, there was an incident of gunfire at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, underscoring the danger on the ground. There were no reported injuries.

The White House also said the president is open to the possibility of American military advisers embedding with Iraqi forces on combat missions. Gen. Dempsey has said that the president has told him he would consider such recommendations on a case-by-case basis. For now, Gen. Dempsey has said that he has not seen the need for such a scenario, though U.S. Central Command’s Gen. Lloyd Austin did support the option of the retaking of Mosul Dam. He eventually found a work-around to avoid that possibility. Officials say U.S. troops in such a situation would be armed and on the front lines, but would not be personally or directly engaging the enemy.

3. RHETORIC: Congressional approval to train and equip Syrian rebels fighting ISIS will be an instant game-changer.

REALITY: Congress has voted in rare bipartisan fashion to approve direct training and equipping of moderate Syrian rebels at camps in Saudi Arabia and other regional states. But it could be late spring 2015 before any of those U.S.-trained fighters hit the battlefield.

The Pentagon says it will take three to five months to set up the training camps, then another two months to train the first batch of rebels. Once the program is up and running, officials say it has the capacity to train up to 5,000 rebels in the fight against an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 ISIS militants in Syria and Iraq.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told a congressional panel today that the program is the first step in a multi-year effort to produce a larger Syrian opposition force. But he said the goal is not to match the size of ISIS’s fighting force but to make moderate Syrian forces “superior fighters” and undercut ISIS’s recruitment. Turning the fighters into a better force would create what Hagel called “a three-front battle” for ISIS with moderate fighters battling the group inside Syria while the Iraqi military and Kurdish forces pressured them inside Iraq.

4. RHETORIC: President Obama is at odds with his generals.

REALITY: The four-star generals and admirals who serve on the Joint Chiefs of Staff are always the first to say that their job is to provide the president with their best military advice. That might include being open to tactical realities that might not square directly with a policy decision by the commander-in-chief.  Gen. Dempsey’s comments opening the door to advisers serving on the battlefield was intended to show that he would be open to the possibility if the situation called for it.

Dempsey supports the president’s plan. Obama backs the general in public. Both are on the same page about the overall strategy and that the job can be done without American troops on a combat mission in Iraq. But it is Dempsey’s job to present the president with other options should the need arise.

5. RHETORIC: U.S. airstrikes in Syria are still an open question that needs Obama's decision.

REALITY: Administration officials have said it’s no longer a matter of “if” but “when” U.S. fighter jets and drones will strike ISIS targets inside northern Syria. President Obama has already given the green light for strikes, leaving it to CENTCOM Commander Gen. Lloyd Austin and other military leaders to identify targets and take them out.

“The President will not sign off on individual airstrikes in Syria,” a National Security Council official told ABC News.

The day-to-day strategy will be carried out by the military in the same way it has undertaken more than 170 airstrikes inside Iraq since Aug. 8. The strikes could begin any day, when ISIS targets in Syria present themselves, officials say. Gen. Dempsey has said that the air campaign in Syria will not be like the “shock and awe” campaign that began the 2003 war in Iraq because ISIS is a different kind of enemy. Instead, he said the U.S. will carry out “persistent and sustainable” airstrikes. The lifting of airstrike restrictions in Iraq has led to airstrikes against ISIS outside of original target areas like the Mosul Dam and Erbil in northern Iraq.