On Thursday, President Barack Obama said that despite increasing talk of a U.S. air campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in eastern Syria, he did not yet have a strategy to expand military action in northern Iraq to the group’s stronghold in eastern Syria.
We asked Ayham Kamel, London-based director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the Eurasia Group, to explain the major challenges informing Obama’s decision.
There’s a really intense debate in the U.S. over strategy when it comes to ISIS bases in Syria, and whether there should be a U.S. policy targeting ISIS in Syria, [or to] focus on Iraq as the main base of operations. I don’t think it’s been fully resolved.
The president is reluctant to begin a military effort in Syria that could open a new war front and adds layers of complication to U.S. policy in the Middle East, so I don’t think we’re definitely heading towards U.S. strikes there.
There are serious dilemmas facing the Obama administration as regards a campaign against ISIS in Syria.
The biggest obstacle here is that any military effort in Syria could be perceived as helping the Assad regime by alleviating some of the security threat it faces. In light of the advances the regime has made [recently], if it is given more power by the U.S.’s attacks against one threat, it could create a problem for the U.S., particularly in terms of the perception that Damascus might pursue misinformation and create an image of some form of cooperation with Washington when there is none.
Another obstacle is that it’s not clear that the U.S. can coordinate [attacks] with members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) or other Syrian rebels. There is a near consensus that the FSA is either too disorganized, or has infiltrated, or at some stages might cooperate with Jabhat al-Nusra. Allegiances among Syrian rebel groups are fluid, and it’s too dangerous for the administration to take a risk and cooperate with one group that might turn out to be [extremist] or switch allegiances in the future. So it’s difficult for the administration to pursue cooperation with the rebels.
The last issue is that with strikes in Syria, Obama would be opening a new front to a Middle East war, and he is very reluctant to do this. Adding additional military commitment to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East is something he’s been trying to avoid for some time now, and I think he’ll continue to try.
From the military perspective, any coherent insurgency against ISIS needs to have both a Syria and Iraq leg. But I don’t think there is necessarily any imminent threat to the U.S. homeland or interests in the near term, so there is some space for the U.S. to test other approaches.
One approach could be to weaken ISIS in Iraq and demonstrate that through compromises between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, ISIS can be constrained, and that military cooperation between Washington, Erbil and Baghdad could weaken ISIS in a material way over the next 12 to 24 months.