Amid news that Barack Obama’s administration has initiated surveillance flights over Syria, the United States is likely to expand its military campaign against the Islamic State insurgency in Iraq across the border into Syria, where the group is based, analysts and former Washington officials say. That long-delayed prospect, however, places the White House in the awkward position of bolstering a Syrian regime it has been working to topple for years now.
The Obama administration began airstrikes on Islamic State targets in Iraq earlier this month at the request of U.S.-backed leaders in Baghdad, after the Al-Qaeda-inspired insurgents seized swaths of Iraq in June and July. But critics have pointed out that a campaign against the Sunni extremists that is limited to Iraq will amount to a stopgap measure, given that the group controls about one-third of Syrian land and has used its Syrian territory as a staging ground for the Iraq offensive.
The U.S. has resisted striking the Islamic State in Syria on grounds it would directly benefit the regime of Bashar al-Assad, whom the West accuses of large-scale human rights violations and holds accountable for the country’s bloodshed. Obama has instead pursued a middle-ground policy, which has entailed providing diplomatic support and limited arms to Syria’s increasingly marginalized moderate rebel factions — refusing to provide the heavy arms needed to make inroads against the regime or fend off the extremist Islamic State.
But with the beheading of American journalist James Foley by an Islamic State faction in Syria last week, the group's brutality has been showcased specifically for the U.S. public and perhaps shifted Washington’s non-interventionist approach to Syria.
“Both militarily and politically, not striking is not an option anymore,” said Douglas Ollivant, a former director for Iraq at the National Security Council during the George W. Bush and Obama administrations and a senior national security fellow with the New America Foundation. “There was a time when you could say the best U.S. policy was to do nothing, but you can’t say that now.”
The last time the U.S. seriously considered striking in Syria was about a year ago, after a deadly chemical weapon attack in the Damascus suburbs that was blamed on the Assad regime — ostensibly a “red line” given by the White House for humanitarian intervention in Syria. With Russia's backing, the Syrian government managed to stave off that threat by destroying its chemical weapons stores under a diplomatic deal, though most analysts believe Obama never wanted to follow through and directly intervene in a conflict of limited strategic importance to the U.S.
“The chemical case was action against the Syrians in contravention of international law regarding chemical weapons, but it was not action against Americans,” said Charles Ries, a former coordinator for economic transition in Iraq at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and now a vice president of the Rand Corp. That ambiguity complicated the legality of a U.S. strike. “The difference here is that the administration could justify this on the basis of self-defense,” he said.
The Foley killing has been a catalyst for potential U.S. intervention in Syria, but U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey, have hinted ever since the Iraq offensive began that the U.S. may finally need to strike in Syria. The Islamic State cannot be vanquished without addressing “both sides of what is essentially at this point a nonexistent border” between Iraq and Syria, Dempsey said Thursday.
Some have compared the battle against the Islamic State in Iraq to the difficulty of fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan while that insurgency’s leadership is believed to be sheltered in Pakistan.
A critical decision for Obama will be whether he chooses to coordinate with the Syrian regime — an awkward alignment that would have been inconceivable just a few months ago. Limited sharing of intelligence could behoove the U.S. operation, as Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem pointed out in a press conference on Monday, when he said Damascus would “welcome” U.S. military strikes against the Islamic State as long as they were coordinated with his government. “Everyone is welcome, including Britain and the United States, to take action against ISIS [an acronym for another name for the Islamic State] … with a prior full coordination with the Syrian government,” he said.
Still, while a U.S. strike that doesn't secure Damascus' approval could be seen as a violation of Syria’s sovereignty, it is doubtful the Assad regime and its foreign backers would do much more than complain if they are not looped in to a U.S. offensive.
Regardless, Washington is faced with the strategic dilemma of how to hamstring the Islamic State without directly benefitting the Assad regime and undermining rhetoric from the Obama administration that it remains committed to unseating Assad — a line that many have come to question while Syria’s moderate rebel factions lose ground. If the U.S. makes good on its threats to crush the Islamic State after waffling on previous threats to strike the Syrian regime, it will have inadvertently signaled that the Assad regime was never an imminent threat to U.S. interests.
In a statement Monday, the leader of the U.S.-backed rebel Syrian National Coalition, which has also decried the emergence of the Islamic State among Syria’s infighting rebel factions, condemned Muallem’s comments and warned that working with Damascus to crush the Islamic State could “politically rehabilitate” the Assad regime. Anti-Assad factions in Syria have long accused the regime of embracing the Islamic State incursion into Syrian territory as vindication of its narrative that the rebellion is populated entirely by terrorists. There is evidence the regime has avoided confrontation with the extremist rebels, and there are rumors it has purchased oil from them.
While the Obama administration recently asked Congress to approve $500 million in aid to Syrian rebels, most analysts believe that injection is too little and much too late to significantly alter the balance of the power in the country, as the death toll from Syria’s civil war climbs toward 200,000.
“Now we’re at a point where everyone realizes the threat presented by ISIS,” said Ollivant. “It hasn’t changed anyone’s opinion about how awful Assad is, but he’s not a threat to the U.S. or Middle East stability. ISIS is.”