Mission-Creeping Toward Syria

by Dish Staff

Obama has authorized surveillance flights over Syria, in what looks like a first step toward some kind of military engagement there:

On Monday evening defense officials said the reconnaissance flights had already started, and told the New York Times that they include both manned and unmanned aircraft. President Obama has yet to approve any military action in Syria, but White House officials said he wouldn’t notify Syrian President Bashar al-Assad if he was — though the country’s foreign minister warned that “any strike which is not coordinated with the government will be considered as aggression.” …

There’s no way that destroying the terrorist group won’t benefit Assad’s forces (and humanity in general), but the U.S. is trying to find a strategy that aids the moderate Syrian rebels more. The Pentagon is said to be working on options that would target ISIS near the Iraqi border, rather than deeper in Syria. The U.S. is also considering increasing its support for the moderate rebels. Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is “looking at a train-and-equip program for the Free Syrian Army.”

Aaron David Miller believes the Syria air campaign is coming, and lists a number of reasons why it’s a bad idea. For one thing, he says airstrikes simply won’t do what we want them to do:

To have a chance of hitting the right targets with any consistency, those 500-pound American bombs require local allies on the ground to provide forward spotters and good intelligence. Airstrikes, as we saw in the open desert of Libya during the 2011 intervention, are better suited against militaries concentrating and moving in open areas than against local militias that have taken root. Take [for] instance Raqaa, the headquarters of the Islamic State’s caliphate. There’s no way an air assault in that urbanized and populated environment would work.

The idea that a bombing campaign alone — even if it’s devastating and sustained — will seriously check, let alone defeat, IS in Syria is a flat-out illusion. And I say this knowing all of the Islamic State’s many weaknesses: a governing ideology that alienates; weak or nonexistent opponents; and the absence of deep roots and legitimacy in Syria.

Adam Taylor examines our options for local partners if we rule out an alliance with the Syrian regime:

Right now … its not clear exactly how plausible U.S. strikes against Islamic State within Syria would be without some kind of approval, tacit or otherwise, from Assad. The Syrian government has warned that unilateral strikes against Islamic State on Syrian soil would be seen as an act of “aggression,” though it has indicated it is open to some kind of cooperation. Assad’s regime has anti-aircraft capabilities and an air force which could be used to hinder any U.S. intelligence gathering or strikes in Syria. Another factor is Russia, a prominent supporter of the Assad regime, which has also voiced criticism.

Joshua Landis, director of Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, argues that a key problem is that the more secular rebel groups don’t have the support they would need to actually control Syria. … Ultimately, Landis argues that the only way for the U.S. to truly destroy the Islamic State and the sectarian extremism it espouses would be to offer some kind of two-state solution for Syria, or get involved in extensive (and extremely expensive) state building exercise. There’s little political support in the U.S. for either. Instead, Landis suspects the U.S. will likely end up “mowing the lawn” with the Islamic State – a reference to the Israeli policy for keeping Hamas weak with periodic and limited strikes. It’s a policy that may be far more acceptable than working with Assad and more practical than a wider intervention, but it won’t necessarily be any more successful.

On the other hand, Pat Buchanan thinks we should go all-in on an alliance of convenience with Assad, which he argues would negate the need for ground troops:

We need no boots on the ground in Syria, for it is the presence of “Crusaders” on Islamic soil that is the principal recruiting tool of the jihadists. What we need is diplomacy beyond the simple-minded, “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists!” a diplomacy that invites old enemies into a coalition for a cause on which we all agree. If Assad is willing to go in for the kill on ISIS, let us work out a truce and amnesty for the Free Syrian Army and call off that part of the rebellion, so Assad’s army can focus on killing ISIS. George H.W. Bush made an ally of Hafez al-Assad in Desert Storm. Why not make an ally of his son against ISIS?

We should next tell the Saudis, Qataris, and Kuwaitis that any more aid to ISIS and they are on their own. We should inform the Turks that their continued membership in NATO is contingent upon sealing their border to ISIS volunteers and their assistance in eradicating the terrorist organization. We should convey to Iran that an end to our cold war is possible if all attacks on the West stop and we work together to exterminate the Islamic State. Why would they not take the deal? As for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed successor to Muhammad, my bet is that he closes out his brief career as caliph at an unscheduled meeting with Seal Team 6.

But Peter Beinart thinks such an alliance would be politically disastrous:

[G]iven that President Obama called on Assad to leave power three years ago and last year almost bombed him for using chemical weapons, even a tacit alliance with the Syrian dictator would make Obama’s past flip-flops look trivial. In Washington, the outcry would be massive, especially because of Syria’s close ties to Iran. Regionally, it might be worse. If relations between Washington and long-standing Sunni allies like Saudi Arabia are frayed now—in part because the U.S. hasn’t intervened against Assad strongly enough—it’s hard to imagine the impact on those relationships were the U.S. and Assad to actually join forces.

From Somalia to Kosovo to Libya, the problem with America’s humanitarian interventions has never been ascertaining the nastiness of the people we’re fighting against. It’s been ascertaining the efficacy and decency of the people we’re fighting for. That’s a particular challenge in the case of ISIS in Syria. I’d love to believe our government is wise enough to surmount that challenge. I’d love to, but I don’t.

In any case, John Cassidy stresses that the US “can’t bomb its way to victory over the jihadists”:

The real keys to success lie in mobilizing the Kurdish and Iraqi forces to repel the jihadist fighters, engineering some sort of resolution to the disastrous Syrian civil war, and closing down ISIS’s international support network. That means keeping up the pressure on Iraqi politicians to form a more representative national government, trying to resurrect the Syrian peace talks, and, perhaps, sending more U.S. military trainers into Iraq. It also means exerting some real pressure on U.S. allies in the region that have been enabling and financing the jihadists inside Syria: Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey come to mind. Without the support, or the tacit encouragement, of any sovereign state, ISIS would be a much weaker force.