Obama’s speech promising to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS this Wednesday satisfied many of the demands McCain made in his New York times editorial: Obama finally promised a grand international campaign against ISIS, not unlike George W Bush’s declaration of the War on Terror against Al Qaeda. Actually, many of Obama’s statements only promised a continuation or expansion of projects that had already been set in motion: training and coordination with Iraqi forces (500 more advisors are being sent for a new total of nearly 1,500 US troops on the ground), humanitarian support for refugees, air strikes in support of Iraqi forces, measures to clamp down on the flow of European and American citizens joining ISIS’s ranks (like foreign terroristic attacks, a larger problem for Europe than the United States). I argued in my previous post that these are all sensible and morally defensible policies. Yet the genuinely new—and troubling—content of the speech is Obama’s intention to authorize air strikes against ISIS in Syria.
This course of action prevents a two-fold dilemma, the first of which is its lack of rationalized strategic outcome. ISIS is the second most powerful faction in the free-for-all Syrian civil war also involving the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad and moderate Syrian rebels, of which the most prominent is the Free Syrian Army. (And this accounting ignores major factional splits such as radical Islamist rebels competing with ISIS, notably the Al Qaeda-backed Al Nusra Front.) Obama is an avowed enemy of Assad, who is responsible both for wide-spread human rights violations in general as well as the use of chemical weapons specifically. Obama reaffirmed in his speech his refusal to cooperate with Assad against ISIS. Yet Obama is likely playing into Assad’s hands: Assad is believed to have limited his military effort against ISIS, so that ISIS could help Assad divide-and-conquer Western moderate rebels, as well as to encourage local minorities to side with him for their own self-defense, and finally in the hopes that ISIS’s growth would shield him from Western attack.
Obama may vow not to support Assad, but if his campaign against ISIS is successful, than one of the factions will have to defeat ISIS forces on the ground and fill the vacuum—and the moderate rebels, whom Obama has vowed to support with additional training and weapons, look unlikely to be the winners. Particularly in the last two years, the Syrian government has received extensive weapons and financial support from Russia and China, as well direct assistance from troops and commando teams sent by Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon This influx of foreign assistance has permitted the Syrian government to reverse many of its losses in the civil war in the last year and a half. It seems dubious that Obama’s promised expansion of military aid to the divided rebel moderate groups can change their fortunes in the conflict yet again. In summary, if the US is successful in degrading ISIS in Syria, the most likely outcome is the strengthening of a dictator Obama has declared his enemy.
The second problematic aspect is that a wider aerial campaign may result in an unacceptable number of civilian casualties for little military benefit. A glance at the list of targets struck by US aircraft in the last several months is instructive: almost all of them are pieces of military hardware such as tanks, artillery, and Humvees (given to the Iraqi army by the U.S. and captured by ISIS, lest we forget!), and the missions were either in support of Iraqi ground forces or in defense of besieged communities. These are easily identifiable as military targets (especially by forces already on the ground) and the morality of attacking them is relatively unambiguous.
To truly launch a wider aerial campaign against a largely non-conventional military opponent, however, the U.S. would have to be less selective. And this becomes especially problematic when launching strikes against targets in Syria, where the U.S. has no troops nor local allies on the ground, (which was not the casein Afghanistan), limiting the U.S. to reliance on aerial intelligence and aerial attack. How does the U.S. root out ISIS from an occupied town with just bombs and satellite photos? Once the obvious heavy weapons are destroyed, the list of targets will become more and more questionable, and likely include lobbing missiles at suspicious-looking apartments and town-houses that have been identified as possible command centers, while hoping that there aren’t too many civilians nearby, just as the Israelis did to widespread condemnation in their recent (failed) campaign in the Gaza strip . For those inclined to dismiss the issue of collateral damage with blithe moral unconcern, the political results of unnecessary civilian deaths are also a military defeat: they further anti-American sentiment throughout the world and persuade people to oppose us, precisely the opposite of what the anti-ISIS campaign is meant to achieve. And historically, air campaigns aimed against civilian morale have always failed.
Fortunately, the promise of a wider air campaign is a vague one, and so it is possible that mission planners will maintain the current judicious target-selection criteria and that the strikes in Syrian territory may be on a smaller scale than indicated—only time will tell. Some even suggest that the Syrian component of Obama’s plan is being carried out with limited expectations of success.
More importantly, Obama made clear he is committed to a strategy of helping local actors defeat ISIS on the ground (the only place ISIS can be decisively defeated), rather than committing U.S. troops to bloody street combat in Iraq once again. Combined with political reforms in Iraq (the success of which are too early to be judged, but which must be celebrated and encouraged nonetheless), Obama’s assistance to Iraqi efforts to reclaim their territory has a decent chance of succeeding. What is left unspoken—but should be obvious—is that if we pursue the same strategy in Syria, the forces on the ground that are most likely to benefit, whether we call them our allies or not, are those loyal to Bashar al-Assad.