The Islamic State’s Home-Field Advantage

5 reasons why an expanded mission to strike James Foley's killers in Syria won't work. And why it's going to happen anyway.


Each day brings unsettling news of the Islamic State’s (IS’s) latest conquest. Last week, the flash point was the Mosul Dam in Iraq; today, the Taqba air base in Syria falls. Meanwhile, the U.S. air campaign continues — haltingly — against IS positions. Anyone who has ever been to a carnival can tell who eventually wins the game of Whac-A-Mole.

Even the Obama administration knows it can’t defeat IS with a few 500-pound bombs in Iraq alone. There are just too many damn moles, with too much room to maneuver. And yet it seems that the White House’s answer is to just grab another hammer — to start slamming IS on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border.

Barack Obama is still a risk-averse president, particularly when it comes to the use of force in the Middle East. But like a moth to a flame, realities on the ground, the logic of the situation, and his own calculus are irrepressibly drawing him closer to using air power in Syria.

Here are five reasons why it’s not such a great idea. Let’s quickly lay out the downsides of striking IS in Syria — and then move to the reasons the president is increasingly likely to do so anyway.

1. Syria isn’t Iraq: In Iraq, the United States has several advantages that could make airstrikes against the Islamic State reasonably effective, including reliable Kurdish allies, the chance of standing up U.S.-trained Iraqi defense forces, intelligence assets, U.S. special operators on the ground, and at least a chance to forge a political reconciliation in Baghdad that might ease the disaffection and alienation of Iraqi Sunnis on which IS now feeds.

Syria has none of these. And none are soon coming, even if the United States gets serious about training and equipping those elusive Syrian moderates or creating an entirely new military force. Indeed, in this regard, Syria has always been a witches’ brew of negatives. And it’s tough to see that changing now, even with a belated and more focused U.S. effort to provide weapons and support to the moderate rebels.

Just look at a few of the obstacles to consistent support: a dizzying array of divided and dysfunctional rebel groups, external backers whose motives are diametrically opposed (see: Saudi Arabia and Qatar), and a Free Syrian Army that in the words of the Monkey Cage‘s Marc Lynch was always more fiction than reality. This landscape has fueled the Islamic State’s rise and has simultaneously limited the effectiveness of outside intervention, including airstrikes.

2. Airstrikes won’t work: To have a chance of hitting the right targets with any consistency, those 500-pound American bombs require local allies on the ground to provide forward spotters and good intelligence. Airstrikes, as we saw in the open desert of Libya during the 2011 intervention, are better suited against militaries concentrating and moving in open areas than against local militias that have taken root. Take for instance Raqqa, the headquarters of the Islamic State’s caliphate. There’s no way an air assault in that urbanized and populated environment would work.

The idea that a bombing campaign alone — even if it’s devastating and sustained — will seriously check, let alone defeat, IS in Syria is a flat-out illusion. And I say this knowing all of the Islamic State’s many weaknesses: a governing ideology that alienates, weak or nonexistent opponents, and the absence of deep roots and legitimacy in Syria. The Islamic State has drawn support not just from Bashar al-Assad’s brutal repression of Sunnis, but from former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s repressive policies toward Iraq’s Sunnis. Indeed, IS’s roots are in Mesopotamia and lead back to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). It’s not a coincidence that the megalomaniacal "Caliph Ibrahim" is actually named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Damascus or Raqqa may be important, but they’re only a means to achieve the more important goal — a caliphate based in Baghdad.

Still, IS is now ensconced in its host Syrian environment like a barnacle attached to the side of a boat. If you believe that it can be defeated or rolled back without a major ground campaign either by the United States or its allies on the ground and without the emergence of stable and good governance on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border, I’ve got a great tip on some yellowcake in Niger I’d like to sell you.

3. Americans ain’t interested: Polls suggest most Americans don’t like Obama’s foreign policy. Who would? It’s messy and seemingly devoid of strategy, and he hasn’t had a slam dunk since whacking Osama bin Laden. To try to sell another ground war in Iraq (and/or Syria) with grandiose conflict-ending goals won’t be politically popular or even feasible. Look at the quandary Congress confronted in 2013 when asked to authorize limited airstrikes in Syria in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons. I was told calls to some congressional offices were running 10 to one against. Given IS’s particularly unique brutality, today’s politics might sustain airstrikes, special operators, drone strikes, and the supply of weapons to the rebels. But much more beyond that seems unlikely now.

The only circumstance that might engender the kind of political consensus to sustain a comprehensive military strategy to defeat IS would be an attack on the homeland. But even after America’s sad experience in Iraq, it would have to be a pretty significant event to justify anything more than a tactical response. You can blame Obama all you want for the rise of IS — heading to the exits too quickly in Iraq and not supporting Syria’s moderate rebels early enough — but his predecessor’s unpopular policies in Iraq gave birth to the group that is now the Islamic State. Americans are right to be cautious about being scared into another quixotic Iraqi adventure.

4. The homeland’s doing just fine: Terrorism isn’t a strategic threat to the United States right now. Last year, the State Department’s annual terrorism report identified 17,891 global fatalities to terrorism; 16 of those were Americans. And despite the Islamic State declaring its intention to fly the flag of Allah from the White House, the reality is that it’s very unlikely the group will ever be an existential threat to the homeland. But with the money, weapons, passports, foreign fighters, and sanctuaries it has been acquiring, the Islamic State clearly poses a significant risk to the United States and its allies.

James Foley’s murder isn’t the equivalent of 9/11. But former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell’s warnings that IS has declared war on the United States and that he wouldn’t be surprised if a member opened fire with an AK-47 at a U.S. mall has shifted the image of the group as a distant regional threat to one here at home. Accurate or not, the media is beating the drum with reports of sleeper cells in America and American-born fighters returning home to commit terrorist attacks. Indeed, the chilling picture of a masked terrorist executing Foley has brought the conflict home, making a bunch of crazy terrorists killing people in a far-off region a deeply personal and American problem.

But I think few people would argue that Obama should make a major military commitment in Syria to avenge the life of one American.

5. Assad still isn’t our friend: The final downside hasn’t changed in four years. Any campaign to weaken the Islamic State will help out Assad. Many analysts argue that IS, in fact, is a creation of the Assad regime, which has used the brutality of this Islamist group to present the message to would-be enemies in Washington and other capitals that Damascus is defending Syria from a fate far worse. After reportedly releasing up to 1,000 hardened prisoners in 2012 and willfully avoiding the targeting of IS positions, the Syrian regime has finally gotten serious about trying to weaken the Islamic State as the jihadists have moved against regime facilities in northeastern Syria.

The alignment, however indirect, of U.S. and Syrian regime interests may be an inconvenient truth, but it’s hardly a shocker. Assad is killing his own people and radicalizing Sunni jihadists, but unlike the Islamic State, he hasn’t singled out the United States or Europe as a primary target of his military campaign. And though he might be a coldblooded killer, his status quo mentality and secularism don’t quite alarm us in the way that IS’s nihilist fundamentalists do. Nobody is calling for a U.S. alliance with Assad. But it seems clear that Washington has accepted the reality that his regime is going to survive.

* * *

So, let’s presume that Obama gets all this. And we already know that he’s inherently risk-averse when it comes to Syria. So why am I so certain Obama will act?

First of all, look at the tough talk that’s being thrown around right now: The president’s somber statement last week following Foley’s savage beheading, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s comments that IS represents an "imminent threat" to U.S. interests; and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey’s frank assessment that defeating IS would require military action in Syria. All lay the rhetorical foundation for an expanded war. Then Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes capped it off, warning IS that if "you come after Americans, we’re going to come after you wherever you are." It may have lacked the punch of George W. Bush’s dead-or-alive language, but it’s pretty direct.

If there’s one area where this president has already demonstrated willingness to take risks, it’s in protecting the safety and security of the American people. This is the president’s ultimate responsibility, and many things can be justified and explained in its name.

Presidents — like the rest of us — need their own internal explanations when making tough and risky decisions, particularly when they have avoided them in the past. And there’s simply no better or more credible way to convince yourself you’re doing the right thing than the argument that you are protecting America. In that context, carrying out airstrikes or deploying limited special operators across what is a nonexistent border between Iraq and Syria should be no problem.

Unfortunately, there is no short-term answer to the Islamic State in either Iraq or Syria. A few bombs — or a few hundred — might save innocent lives and kill a few jihadists, but they’re not going to do much beyond that. A long-term strategy of arming, training, equipping, and marshaling allies, and addressing Iraq’s political dysfunction, well … is long term. (For a smart take on that, by the way, see my friend and former State Department colleague Zalmay Khalilzad’s article in the National Interest.)

And that, oddly enough, is perhaps the most compelling reason President Obama has to act in Syria.

Since Washington can’t sit on the sidelines and wait for the results of a long-term approach, it’ll do what it does best: find the middle ground. The battlefield will be expanded; airstrikes in Syria will happen. Does it all lack for strategy? Is it a prescription for mission creep? Yes and yes. But blowing up a bunch of very bad people feels good. And whether you approve or not, it’s coming.

Aaron David Miller, a distinguished fellow at the Wilson Center, served as a State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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