Obama’s Syria rationale: Bombing ISIS without helping Assad
By: Joyce Karam
U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey did not mince his words last week, telling reporters that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has to be defeated and such a goal cannot be achieved without dealing with its vast presence in Syria. Yet, targeting ISIS militarily in Syria if authorized by U.S. President Barack Obama will be aimed at dealing a blow to the terrorist group without lending advantage to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Walking this fine line will be debated in policy rooms inside the administration in anticipation of a presidential decision by the end of week, according to The Daily Beast. Key in this regard will be the kind of intelligence that U.S. surveillance planes already over Syria are able to collect on ISIS targets and finding a partner among the Syrian rebels and Kurdish forces to counter ISIS on the ground as it’s bombarded by the U.S. Air Force.
Scope of U.S. mission
If Obama gives the green light to expanding the air strikes into Syria, it is important to put such an operation in perspective recognizing its limitations and targeted objectives. The logic to go into Syria is mainly driven by hitting ISIS’ command and control that is more rooted today in eastern Syria, than western Iraq where Washington has been bombing the group since August 7. The operation, if authorized, will target on the border area between Syria and Iraq and will be very focused in nature, thus unlikely to target the Assad regime or other al-Qaeda affiliated groups inside Syria such as the al-Nusra Front which is fighting ISIS.
The logic to go into Syria is mainly driven by hitting ISIS’ command and control that is more rooted today in eastern Syria, than western Iraq
The U.S. rationale is based on Syria being the central stronghold of ISIS, and that its leadership and command including Abu Bakr Baghdadi are based in Syria and not Iraq. In essence, ISIS’ malignant growth in Syria in last two years has allowed it to make a comeback into Iraq and not vice versa. ISIS erased the Iraqi-Syrian border last June when it captured the Iraqi city of Mosul, and gained plenty of momentum helping in recruits and funding. The Obama administration has slowly realized that the group’s core strength and operation capability is unlikely to be massively hindered if it’s not struck in Syria. Today, ISIS enjoys full control of the Syrian province of Raqqa where it captured an airbase from the regime forces this week, and in Deir Azzor through nothing less than a campaign of terror, crucifying and beheading rebel commanders.
In such a mission, however, the U.S. will be careful not to do any favors for Assad, nor seek his help or permission in conducting the strikes. The mission, according to the Wall Street Journal, would be focused on Eastern Syria and American officials have told the paper that Assad’s air-defense systems “won’t pose a threat because sensors are either sparsely located or inoperable” in that region and the “drones would enter Syrian airspace without any Syrian regime approval or authorization.”
Politically, little has changed in Obama’s view of Assad since he called on him to step down in August of 2011. Back then, Assad was seen as a liability for lacking the ability to stabilize Syria and exit the political crisis, and today with him losing control of territories in the north and the east, and the number of casualties reaching 190,000, he is more so. White House Deputy National Security advisor Ben Rhodes told the New York Times this week that “joining forces with Assad would essentially permanently alienate the Sunni population in both Syria and Iraq, who are necessary to dislodging ISIS.” The State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki went a step further, accusing Assad of “helping ISIS recruit by refusing to deal with the Syrian people’s legitimate grievances, or to accept any willingness or openness for a real political solution.”
Finding a partner
In making the case for the strikes, the U.S. has been promoting the idea of strengthening the “moderate opposition.” A U.S. official tells Al Arabiya News that the “Assad regime actions has allowed ISIS to flourish, and the focus is on building capable partners in moderate opposition.” In this operation specifically, the U.S. could be looking at non-extremist elements in Deir Azzor such as the tribes and brigades loyal to the Free Syrian army (FSA).
Oubai Shahbandar a strategic communications advisor for the Syrian Coalition, the largest political opposition group, tells Al Arabiya News that the opposition leadership has “made clear to U.S. and Western officials that coordinating any possible future airstrikes with the FSA and opposition leadership will maximize their impact in degrading the ISIS threat.”
He says that “there has been some movement of U.S. military aid to help the FSA hold the line against ISIS in northern Aleppo” but warns that “an exponential increase of this support is needed in order to sustain an offensive campaign to liberate territory held by ISIS.”
In an event of U.S. strikes against ISIS, Shabandar hints the FSA can be the “eyes on the ground” and “alongside Kurdish forces, are the only force that can deny ISIS the ability to hold ground in Syria.” But even within the FSA, there are legitimate questions about its ability to push back ISIS, while the Kurds in Syria (PYD) have coordinated territory control with the Assad regime in the past.
If and when U.S. President Barack Obama approves air strikes within Syria, the indications point to a long and very focused operation. One that is unlikely to overhaul the conflict dynamics in Syria, but in best case scenarios cut the head of the ISIS snake and turn the tide against it in the heart of the Middle East.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam