Targeting extremists in Syria: Can the U.S. do it without helping Assad?

A primer on the thorny issues

WASHINGTON, D.C. - The U.S. has begun surveillance flights over Syria, the first step in what could become airstrikes against Islamic State terrorists there.

One of the challenges will be how to target the extremists without doing so in a way that benefits President Bashar al-Assad.

[Related: ISIS was a ‘jayvee’ team in January, but in the big leagues today]

Here are some questions and answers about the situation.

Why is the U.S. acting now?

President Barack Obama has resisted getting involved in Syria, a country already immersed in a civil war. He is particularly loath to do anything to help Assad, whom he almost went to war against last year.

But the administration has become increasingly alarmed about the rise of Islamic State, also known as ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) or ISIS, (the Islamic State of Iraq and al-sham). The group took credit for murdering American journalist James Foley, who was beheaded in a video posted online. The extremists have threatened to kill other American citizens.

Is the next step to launch attacks inside Syria?

That would be a logical conclusion. The U.S. launched attacks against the Islamic State inside of Iraq several weeks ago. Obama said it was necessary to protect Americans in the country and ease the humanitarian crisis there.

The likely target in Syria would be the militant’s stronghold of Raqqa in the north central part of the country. White House Spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday that Obama has shown he would use military action in order to protect Americans, and “that is true without regard to international boundaries.”

Will Obama seek congressional approval?

Earnest deflected questions about that, saying he wouldn’t speculate since Obama hadn’t made a decision about military action. Earnest said only that Obama “has remained committed to consulting regularly with members of Congress and congressional leaders.”

He said this is different from the situation last year, when Obama prepared to ask for congressional approval to strike the Assad regime to try to make sure it didn’t use chemical weapons. “What we're talking about now is not about the Assad regime, but about this threat that's posed by ISIL that's operating both in Iraq and in Syria,” Earnest said.

Still, Sen. Bob Corker,  R-Tenn., the leading Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told MSNBC he hoped the White House would request authorization to act.

"I think it's our responsibility as elected officials to let the American people know where we stand with respect to national security matters," Corker said. "For the American people's sake, Congress should weigh in. Congress should be a part of it."

How might the Assad regime be affected by strikes against the Islamic State?

The militants are among those seeking to topple Assad, so actions against them could ostensibly help Assad. Nevertheless, the Syrian government has said it would consider any airstrikes an “act of aggression” unless they were coordinated with Assad’s regime.

“Syria is ready for cooperation and coordination at the regional and international level to fight terrorism,” said Walid Muallem, Syria’s foreign minister.

Administration officials said the U.S. did not plan to notify the Syrian government of the flights. “We are not interested in trying to help the Assad regime,” Earnest said, though he added, “there are a lot of cross pressures here in this situation.”

Might that change?

Two top former military and counterterrorism officials indicated on ABC’s “This Week” that’s probably inevitable. They spoke Sunday, before word that the surveillance flights had begun.

Gen. John Allen, who commanded the Afghanistan war, was a little equivocal about a partnership with Assad. "I think the actions that we take may, in fact, be not in coordination necessarily, but provide an opportunity for coordinated effort," said Allen. "But we don't share any values with the Iranian regime, and we don't share any values with the Syrian regime."

Richard Clarke, a former top counterterrorism adviser, was more blunt.

"We are going to have to make a choice," he said. "If we want to eliminate this ISIS we are going to have to deal with people we don't like. The president said we wanted Assad out. Well, we are going to have to say something to the Syrian government if we are going to start bombing in Syria. And if we are going to get rid of ISIS, we are going to have to start bombing in Syria."

Just what are the U.S. options in Syria now?

The Washington Post has listed a number of options and the national security experts advocating for them. They include:

 

  • Limited airstrikes, regional diplomacy, and an incremental rollback of Islamic State fighters
  • Strike Islamic State forces in Syria, even if it helps Assad
  • Put combat troops on the ground, boost special ops and increase airstrikes
  • Fight only if the U.S. has the political consensus at home to do so, anything less is unsustainable and cannot succeed

 

And what is the case against airstrikes?

Aaron David Miller, a Middle East scholar at the Wilson Center, listed five reasons why air power alone in Syria wouldn’t be enough to make much of a difference. Writing in Foreign Policy magazine, he says among the assets the U.S. had in Iraq but lacks in Syria are reliable Kurdish allies, intelligence assets and U.S. special operators on the ground. And, he says, airstrikes are better targeted against militaries in open areas than against local militias. “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.” 

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