09/17/2014 10:20 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2014

To Avoid Escalating the War, Don't Arm Syrian 'Moderates'

Win McNamee via Getty Images

The Obama administration has a dilemma when it comes to the war in Iraq and Syria. On the one hand, the president desperately wants to persuade the public that the war will be limited, and that there will be no U.S. combat troops on the ground there. On the other hand, top administration officials have set the goal of "degrading and destroying" ISIS and have called it an "imminent threat to every interest we have." Yesterday's hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee on U.S. policy in Iraq and Syria gave some insight into whether the administration will be able to wage a limited war against what it claims is a virtually unlimited threat.

The first and perhaps most important revelation was from Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, who indicated that he would not hesitate to recommend that the president send in ground troops should the situation warrant it. So, the pledge of "no ground troops" is now "no ground troops unless we decide to send in ground troops."

Dempsey was careful to suggest that if he were to recommend the use of ground forces -- or "close combat advisers," as he called them in one instance -- it would be on a "case-by-case basis." But the cases where he might seek approval for combat troops seemed like they could easily arise. One example was if ISIS recaptured the dam in Mosul and U.S. troops were needed to help get it back. Another was rescuing any U.S. pilot shot down in enemy territory.

Even as the risk of putting ground troops into the middle of a war zone grows, the air war is accelerating. Bloomberg News has reported on the first "offensive" U.S. air strikes of the war. And at yesterday's Senate hearing Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) raised another possibility -- air strikes against the Assad regime in Syria in retaliation for attacks they might make on U.S.-trained forces there. Gen. Dempsey tried to duck the question, but the Associated Press reported that the administration has already contemplated such a response.

And Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) raised the prospect of needing to use U.S. ground troops to "dig" ISIS out of Syria, suggesting that no allied security force would be up to the task. Dempsey expressed confidence that U.S. forces would not be needed to defeat ISIS in Syria, but he offered no persuasive evidence as to why that would be the case.

The greatest threat of the war escalating to involve U.S. ground troops is the huge gap between U.S. goals and on-the-ground reality. Dempsey stressed that the U.S. strategy could not work without "effective partners" in both Iraq and Syria. But there are no "effective partners" as yet, and the U.S. involvement is expanding anyway. Shiite militias have used their political clout to block the appointment of a moderate, non-sectarian interior minister for the new Iraqi government. And members of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia who have been involved in the murders of innocent Sunni citizens in Baghdad have not been called to account by the new government. In fact, militia leaders have suggested that they could actually attack U.S. personnel if they end up in the same battle spaces.

As for Syria, current plans call for it to take a year to train 5,000 "moderate" fighters, and many analysts question whether these moderates can be found in the first place. So the creation of an "effective partner" in Syria remains more fantasy than reality.

Without viable allies on the ground in Syria or Iraq, military progress against ISIS will be hard to achieve. This in turn will encourage hawks in the U.S. Congress and among the political punditry to press for more aggressive U.S. action, including sending Special Forces or other U.S. military personnel into combat.

In short, whether or not President Obama intends to send ground troops into combat in Iraq, there is a real danger that the dynamics of the conflict will lead to that result.

The time to head off a wider war is now. Congress should vote today to deny authorization to arm Syrian forces; and there should be a debate and a Congressional vote before the administration is allowed to continue the war in Iraq.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.