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Despite airstrikes, questions remain over Obama’s ISIL strategy

Analysis: Expanding the air campaign into Syria raises dilemmas different from those presented in Iraq

U.S. officials described Tuesday morning’s airstrikes against Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) targets in Syria as the first salvo in an expansion of the campaign against the extremist group into a more strategically complicated arena. The strikes opened the door for what will likely be a prolonged coalition offensive against ISIL in Syria, where the group is based, but it left many questions unanswered about Washington’s end game. U.S. officials on Tuesday wouldn’t comment on what comes next for war-torn Syria except to say that the tempo of the operation “will be dictated by facts on the ground.” But more strikes are a sure thing, they said.

Here we break down some of the more pressing tactical and political questions facing the U.S. and its Arab allies as the campaign against ISIL rolls on.

Why does the president set so much store by the symbolic involvement of Arab air forces in the Syria strikes? 

In a brief White House address on the airstrikes on Tuesday, President Barack Obama trumpeted the involvement of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan in the overnight action in Syria. “The strength of this coalition makes it clear to the world that this is not America’s fight alone,” he said.

Although the U.S. airstrikes have been on the table for weeks, Obama wanted to shore up support for the campaign among regional and other Western powers not because of the firepower added by the allies but  to avoid the pitfalls of unilateral intervention that beset the U.S. in the last Iraq invasion. Painting the offensive as a joint effort with Sunni Arab powers is also seen as essential to prying popular Sunni support from the ISIL insurgency, which, as it expands its foothold in the region, has piggybacked on sectarian resentment of Shia-led Baghdad and of the Alawite regime of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. But how much Sunni popular support the U.S.-led action gains through the involvement of Sunni autocracies remains an open question — particularly if the intervention leaves Assad’s regime unscathed. 

Which ground force in Syria will provide the partner necessary to make the airstrikes effective? If none exists, what was the goal of Tuesday’s strikes?

Conventional wisdom among military analysts and planners holds that airstrikes alone can’t defeat an irregular force like ISIL but can tilt the balance on the battlefield in favor of an allied ground force. The question is, Which ground force in Syria will clear ISIL out of areas currently under extremist control and then hold those areas in the face of ISIL and the Assad regime’s efforts to recapture them?

In Iraq, U.S.-led airstrikes provide vital support to Iraqi government forces and the Kurdish peshmerga fighting ISIL on the ground. In Syria, however, there’s no clear tactical partner: The Obama administration insists it will steer clear of coordination with Assad’s forces, while the anti-ISIL rebel groups deemed sufficiently moderate for Western powers to support are currently too weak to play that role. Congress last week approved an Obama administration plan to arm and train vetted moderate rebels from camps in Saudi Arabia, but that process is expected to take at least a year, all while Syria’s moderate factions are losing ground on the battlefield.

When queried by reporters about whom Tuesday’s strikes were meant to bolster on the ground in Syria, Army Lt. Gen. William Mayville, director of operations of the Joint Staff, redirected those questions to the State Department — an apparent indication that at this point, partnering with Syria’s rebels is more a political consideration than an immediate military tactical concern.

He also underlined what the administration previously argued: that Iraq remains the focus of U.S.-led efforts and that rolling back ISIL in Syria is a priority only in that it curtails the group’s capabilities across the border. “We are focused first in Iraq because we have a partner in Iraq to work with,” he said. Syria, he said, is about “striking through the depths of ISIL’s formation.”

Do the strikes threaten the Assad regime?

Over the past few weeks, as it became clear the U.S. intended to strike ISIL in Syrian territory, Damascus and its backers have issued repeated — if empty — warnings that a U.S.-led strike within its borders would amount to a violation of Syrian sovereignty. But when the U.S. and its allies finally took action on Tuesday, the Assad regime responded in a press release that all but endorsed the strikes, saying that it supports “any international effort to fight against terrorism” and noting that the U.S. gave it advance notice.

An overarching concern of Obama’s plans to strike ISIL in Syria has been that such an effort will inevitably bolster Assad. ISIL, after all, technically numbers among the rebel factions fighting to upend 40 years of Assad family rule, though in reality it clashes with other rebel factions nearly as often.

Assad is claiming vindication for his narrative that the rebels are nothing more than terrorists as he enjoys the spectacle of his most fervent foes in the region — the Sunni Arab powers that joined the U.S. strikes — tackling the most dangerous challengers to his regime on the ground. And by implying that Damascus was on board with the strikes when actually it had no say, Assad underlines the fact that as far as the U.S. is concerned, his regime is the lesser of two evils.

What about civilian casualties?

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, eight civilians were killed in Tuesday’s bombardment. Although U.S. officials said they were unaware of any such casualties, the reports awoke concerns about how effectively the U.S. and its allies will be able to minimize casualties as they attempt to debilitate an insurgency that has begun to melt into its surroundings. ISIL leadership, assets and even headquarters are scattered among the sprawling urban landscapes of cities like Raqqa, and there are fears that civilians will inevitably be collateral damage from time to time (as has been the case in other fronts of the war on terrorism, such as Yemen). Though the U.S. has no intention to win hearts and minds as it endeavored to do the last time around in Iraq, turning popular opinion against the offensive and pushing Syrians and Iraqis into the arms of the insurgents is a real concern.

The Pentagon on Tuesday released a series of images and videos showcasing the precision munitions it used to hit ISIL targets, in an apparent effort to boost confidence that minimizing civilian deaths was not only a priority but a real capability. In one slide displayed at the Pentagon press conference, Mayville pointed out how a rooftop communications array was destroyed while the rest of the building was left intact.

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