Fighting The Islamic State In Iraq And Syria?

by Dish Staff


The border between Iraq and Syria is meaningless to ISIS, and may soon become meaningless to the US as well, with administration officials dropping hints right and left that the air campaign against the “caliphate” might eventually cross it. The hints began with deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes on NPR early yesterday morning:

“We don’t rule anything out when it comes to the protection of Americans and the disruption of terrorist plotting against the United States. So we would not restrict ourselves by geographic boundaries when it comes to the core mission of U.S. foreign policy, which is the protection of our people.” … When Kelly McEvers floated an idea put forth by Ryan Crocker, former American ambassador to both Afghanistan and Iraq, that the U.S. work with Syrian dictator Bashar Assad against ISIL, Rhodes dismissed the idea out of hand. Citing a “vacuum” caused by Assad’s policies and “barbarism against his people,” Rhodes explained that ISIL was able to grow because of Assad, not in spite of him.

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey rounded out the suggestion in a press conference:

So far the airstrikes against ISIS have been successful, but the New York Times notes that the military’s current strategy is to contain the group, not destroy it. ISIS has been building up its base in Syria for more than a year, and General Dempsey said the threat would eventually have to be “addressed on both sides of what is essentially at this point a nonexistent border.”

That isn’t necessarily happening anytime soon. “That will come when we have a coalition in the region that takes on the task of defeating ISIS over time,” Dempsey said. “ISIS will only truly be defeated when it’s rejected by the 20 million disenfranchised Sunni that happen to reside between Damascus and Baghdad.” When pressed on whether the U.S. is considering conducting airstrikes in Syria, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel would only say “we’re looking at all options.”

Allahpundit wonders exactly what options they’re looking at:

A year ago at this time, Obama was getting ready to bomb Syria to weaken Assad; a year later, here’s his deputy National Security Advisor refusing to rule out bombing Syria to weaken Assad’s chief opposition. Droning jihadis in places we don’t have boots on the ground is SOP for Obama, though. How big this news is depends on what sort of air assets Rhodes imagines us using in Syria and what sort of ISIS targets Obama’s willing to engage. If all he means is droning jihadi terror camps, that’s no great shakes. Why would we hold off on doing that in Syria when we don’t hold off in Pakistan and Yemen, two nominal allies of the United States? If he means using more muscular — and manned — aircraft, though, and if he’s imagining bombing ISIS’s front lines, that’s more significant. (It would also kinda sorta make us Assad’s air force, wouldn’t it?)

The Economist suggests that an air campaign over Syria would be an easier sell if regional leaders were on board with it:

Assad has previously tended to leave IS alone, happy to let it hurt the more moderate rebels. But recently his air force has struck the group’s base in Raqqa. The Americans have so far decided that they cannot do likewise, deeming that they must not be seen to operate on the same side as the man whose overthrow they have repeatedly demanded.

But they may be persuaded to change their mind if the most influential governments in the region, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and even Iran, were able in joint or parallel statements to endorse the bombing of IS in Syria—or at least to abstain from opposing it. So far the West has lacked a policy that spans national borders. Yet [Atlantic Council analyst Fred] Hof points out that “IS is a problem that transcends national boundaries and has to be approached as a problem that transcends nationalist boundaries.”

Rosie Gray takes up the question of whether striking ISIS in Syria would entail an alliance with Bashar al-Assad:

“What if, due to a deal [Assad] stopped slaughtering his own people?” former CIA analyst Nada Bakos said on Twitter on Wednesday night. Journalist Michael Weiss had asked, “To those advocating a deal with Assad to defeat ISIS, explain how this is any less barbarous” with a link to an article about new evidence of regime atrocities. Bakos said in an email to BuzzFeed that the goal should be to stabilize the situation in Syria, giving actors in the region a better chance at vanquishing ISIS.

“I don’t believe Assad’s forces can achieve that single-handedly and we aren’t about to partner with him, nor should we,” Bakos said. “However, arming the rebels at this point just means a longer, protracted war that is already full of proxies. It would be almost endless. If we can identify why we are taking action, we can then decide on our best course of action (which is likely still pretty awful). Our goal should be to stop the chaos, but sometimes all we can do from the outside is just help contain it.”

But at least for the moment, the administration is vociferously denying that such an alliance is in the offing:

“The Obama administration can’t partner with Assad overtly at this time, but the logic and trajectory of White House policy in Syria leads in that direction,” Tony Badran, a research fellow specializing in Syria and Hezbollah at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Fox News. “White House policy in Syria is predicated on preserving so-called regime institutions.”

In public, the administration is not changing its position on Assad. And State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf disputed that the U.S. and Syrian governments share a common goal in defeating ISIS. “I would strongly disagree with the notion that we are on the same page here,” Harf said on Monday, while later admitting to Fox News, “We may be looking at some of the same targets.”

Keating’s perspective:

Even if the U.S. doesn’t coordinate with Assad’s government—the White House position as expressed by Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes is still that he’s “part of the problem”—the shift in priority to ISIS does make it more likely that the American government is going to accept Assad remaining in power. Or at least it makes it less likely that the U.S. will take any major steps to remove him.

Assad played the long game with a pretty weak hand and now appears to bewinning. Meanwhile, the death toll in his country just passed 191,000.

(Photo: A Syrian woman makes her way through debris following a air strike by government forces in the northern city of Aleppo on July 15, 2014. By Karam Al-Masri/AFP/Getty Images)