On Wednesday night, President Barack Obama outlined an expanded strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the extremist army calling itself the Islamic State (also know as ISIS or ISIL).
“Our objective is clear: We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy,” Obama said from the State Floor of the White House on Wednesday night.
But the decision to expand the U.S.-led air campaign into Syria raises a bunch of questions about how Obama — who for years has actively avoided the deteriorating situations in Iraq and Syria — will justify and follow through on his commitment.
Obama says that he has “the authority to address the threat of ISIL” in Syria without congressional approval. But the argument is on dubious legal footing, with a senior administration official saying it relies on a 2001 law authorizing war on Al Qaeda, which broke off with ISIS earlier this year and has fought the group in Syria.
“We believe that he can rely on the 2001 AUMF as statutory authority for the military airstrike operations he is directing against ISIL,” a senior administration official told reporters on a conference call previewing the speech.
The commander-in-chief also cited similar strategies targeting Al Qaeda affiliates in Somalia and Yemen as examples of how the U.S. would take on ISIS. But NBC’s Richard Engel immediately detailed how he thought that analogy was an “oversimplification” and “wildly off-base” because those countries have cooperative governments helping U.S. special forces on the ground.
The Middle East is more hostile. The Shia-dominated Iraqi government, while being revamped after disastrous tenure of Nouri al-Maliki, is heavily influenced by Iran. Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Qods Force, the foreign arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, directs sectarian militias in both Iraq and Syria. And Syrian President Bashar Assad’s survival has depended on huge support from Tehran and Moscow.
On Wednesday, Obama called the Syrian government “a regime that will never regain the legitimacy it has lost” as it continues to torture revolutionaries and bomb civilians on an industrial scale. Nevertheless, Obama has repeatedly disregarded the nationalist rebels fighting Assad as “an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists, and so forth.”
Former administration officials have been highly critical of that characterization, noting that tens of thousands of Syrian army defectors also joined the revolution under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Saudi Arabia has agreed to host training camps for Syrian rebels considered to be moderate, many of who fight under the FSA banner.
In 2012, the Center for American Progress reports, FSA became part of a Western-backed project to build “a cohesive, national, and democratic opposition that could fill the potential power vacuum following President Assad’s fall.”
Despite being decimated by a lack of support and simultaneous wars against ISIS and Assad, the FSA is the only fighting force that has actually beaten ISIS over time.
Obama’s critics argue that both Assad and Islamic State would be weaker if the U.S. had actively supported the revolution long ago.
“The case is compelling that had we taken a different course two years ago we’d be in a much better situation right now than what we face,” Frederic Hof, who served Obama as a special adviser on Syria and is now at the Atlantic Council, told Reuters.
Obama has requested that Congress include so-called “Title 10” authority under the U.S. code in a must-pass spending bill, which would allow the U.S. to ramp up assistance to vetted rebels.
“I see President Obama is making the case for helping the moderate Syrian rebels that we were making three years and 200,000 dead bodies ago,” one supporter of the Syrian revolution noted on Twitter.
But it’s unclear how far Obama is willing to support Syrian rebels.
“If the U.S. arms rebels to fight ISIS, the rebels will also want to fight Assad. Will the U.S. arm them enough to go all the way to Damascus?” Engel asked after Obama’s speech.
What is clear is that Assad is seen as part of the problem, despite his best efforts to argue otherwise. Obama acknowledged as much when he said that Assad could not “bring peace or stability to an area that is majority Sunni” after showering civilians with poison gas and barrel bombs.
And the White House went to lengths Wednesday to attempt to explain why a U.S. campaign against ISIS in Syria would not benefit Assad, even without coordination between the U.S. and Syrian governments.
“We do not think that our efforts in Syria will provide an opening to Assad because, frankly, the areas where ISIL has a stronghold in Syria would simply not accept Assad’s rule,” a senior U.S. official said. “We, frankly, believe that if ISIL was degraded in these areas, the forces that are most likely to benefit are other opposition elements, particularly the legitimate Syrian opposition who we work with.”
But the “legitimate Syrian opposition” is fighting for its survival in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and the last place that the FSA has a significant foothold. As it stands, the FSA is not strong enough to capture ISIS territory after U.S. bombing runs.
“Assad is the far stronger player in Syria; hitting ISIS necessarily helps him consolidate power,” geopolitical expert Ian Bremmer told Business Insider in an email. “That’s a cause and effect that the U.S. is trying to avoid, but it’s the reality.”
The decision to truly strengthen Syrian rebels — thereby getting involved in “somebody else’s civil war” — ultimately comes back to Obama. And there is no tangible sign that he is ready to do what it would take.
“From everything the administration has said and leaked to the press, we know that it will not offer the FSA any meaningful protection from the Syrian Air Force’s punishing aerial assaults, either in the form of a no-fly zone or shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles,” journalist Michael Weiss writes in Now. “This means that the same rebels who, as Col. Derek Harvey told me a few weeks ago, were already fighting six different enemies in Syria will only be equipped to carry on fighting one. So what happens if Assad continues to bomb America’s half-a-billion-dollar counterterrorism proxy force?”
Furthermore, the administration has yet to push for an outright rebel victory. During a previous U.S. training program in Jordan, the White House allowed the CIA to provide “enough support to help ensure that politically moderate, U.S.-supported militias don’t lose but not enough for them to win.”
Fred Hof, a former special adviser for transition in Syria under then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, recently noted that the recommendation to train and arm the moderate opposition was offered in some form not only by Clinton, “but by Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta, CIA Director David Petraeus, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey.”
Obama ‘Certainly Exacerbated The Situation’
Obama’s eagerness to stay out of both Iraq and Syria has contributed to the current regional crisis.
The NYT Baghdad Bureau Chief Tim Arango said this week that “after 2011 the administration basically ignored [Iraq]. And when officials spoke about what was happening there they were often ignorant of the reality.”
Ali Khedery, the longest continuously serving American official in Iraq (2003-09), recently told Reza Akhlaghi of the Foreign Policy Association that the Obama administration “betrayed the promises that the U.S. government had made to the Sunni tribal leaders,” who had previously fought with American troops against ISIS-predecessor Al Qaeda in Iraq during the Iraq War.
America’s continued support of Maliki in December 2010 and beyond made it so that “Iraq’s path toward civil war was really inevitable,” Khedery said, as Maliki steered Baghdad “toward a very pro-Iranian and sectarian agenda, which inevitably disillusioned and disenfranchised Sunni Arabs for a second time.”
In October, The New York Times reported that during senior staff meetings about Syria, Obama “often appeared impatient or disengaged while listening to the debate, sometimes scrolling through messages on his BlackBerry or slouching and chewing gum.”
The president’s lack of interest may have led to a misunderstanding of ISIS as it grew increasingly powerful over the past two years. In January, Obama told The New Yorker suggested the administration viewed ISIS as a “jayvee team” wearing Lakers uniforms.
The gaffe showed “all too clearly how his administration did come up short in badly underestimating ISIS’ capabilities,” Bremmer told BI. “Granted, most experts made the same mistake, given the extraordinary successes the U.S. had against Al Qaeda’s leadership and the scope of continued surveillance efforts inside Iraq. But Obama dubbing ISIS the ‘jayvee’ team of terrorists can help explain why there was never a strategy drawn up to respond to potential worst-case scenarios — which has certainly exacerbated the situation today.”
Brett LoGiurato contributed to this report.
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