Last week, President Obama said that he has no strategy yet to confront the Islamic State (IS) in Syria. He was attempting to counter speculation about American bombing of IS targets there. It had been rumored that the President wanted to decide on a war plan by the end of the week.
Before the Commander-in-Chief reviews war plans, he must give strategic guidance that specifies his intent. What is he trying to accomplish? It does not suffice to wax metaphorical about the IS being a cancer. He needs to decide whether the objective is to destroy it and prevent it from spreading, to contain and perhaps shrink it, or more modestly to limit the damage. In less metaphorical terms, the President might want to ensure that the IS is less capable of committing atrocities against civilians and harming Americans (his declared objectives in Iraq). Without guidance on goals, it will be impossible to design a strategy or to judge whether progress is being made.
Circumstances in Syria make setting the goals particularly challenging. The IS and other extremists, including the Al-Qa‘ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, are not the only problem. Bashar al-Assad’s regime has conducted a war against its own citizens that has killed more than 200,000 Syrians, displaced more than a third of the population, and forced 3 million to become refugees, mostly in neighboring countries. Intervention focused against the IS and other extremists could inadvertently free Assad to suppress the more moderate rebels and help him to reestablish his authoritarian rule. The United States must ensure that their friends, not Assad or Islamist extremists, benefit from U.S. military intervention.
Moderates in Aleppo, for example, are being attacked from the north by the IS and from the south by regime forces. Targeting IS could cause Aleppo to be captured by the regime. Likewise, the IS has taken over Raqqa in eastern Syria from the regime in the last few weeks. Attacking them there could enable regime forces to return.
A White House spokesman has suggested that the President’s objective will be containment and some rollback. Containment should be feasible, if it means preventing the IS from crossing rural and desert expanses to attack population centers, either in Syria or Iraq. But it would require destruction of Syria’s air defenses, which itself is a major military enterprise.
Rollback is even more difficult. It would require not only destruction of Syrian air defenses but also vigorous and sustained U.S. air attacks. Pushing the IS back from an isolated, fixed installation in the desert, as was done in Iraq at the Mosul Dam, is relatively easy. Getting IS out of Syrian cities and towns will be far more difficult, as the confrontation lines change often and who controls what is not clear. Targeting is therefore harder and collateral damage likely. Even if defeated in Aleppo or Raqqa, IS cadres can melt into an urban population, lying low until a new opportunity presents itself.
Rollback also raises the question of who would secure and govern any areas that are taken back from the IS. Washington recognizes the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) as the political representative of the Syrian people, and it will need enormous strengthening if it is to provide policing and governance in areas from which IS has been rolled back. The SOC will also need continued military protection. Assad has often bombarded liberated areas, including hospitals and schools, in an effort to make them ungovernable. The strategy will therefore have to include a commitment to continued application of military force as well as a plan for governance, justice and delivery of services. If liberated areas are left unprotected, the IS or the Assad regime will return, sooner rather than later.
Defeating the IS in Syria and preventing it from spreading would be even more demanding. Defeat is already proving difficult in Iraq, even with Kurdish and Iraqi security forces fighting IS on the ground. They are far stronger relative to the IS than the SOC-loyal forces in Syria. Defeat of the IS in Syria will also require a difficult political straddle: while supporting a Shi‘i-led government in Iraq, the United States will need to provide the mostly Sunni rebels in Syria with the means to defeat the IS as well as the Shi‘i-allied Assad regime.
If the IS is defeated and the territory it controls falls to the opposition, the SOC would then be in a far better position to negotiate with the Assad regime than it was in January, when the Geneva II talks failed to produce the political transition that the United States and the SOC wanted. Syrians are understandably reluctant to oppose Assad if they think the alternative is the IS, which not only abuses the civilian population but is also largely manned by non-Syrians. Without the IS boogey-man, Assad’s days will be shortened.
The post-war state-building tasks in both Syria and Iraq will be colossal. With its oil infrastructure in the south undamaged, Iraq can in principle pay for its own rebuilding; it is a wealthy country with about $100 billion in oil revenue at current prices. But Syria cannot. Its oil production was declining even before the war, its fields are now damaged, its infrastructure is devastated, and its bills are unpaid. If the IS is defeated, someone is going to have to foot a big bill. Washington need pay only a fraction. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have supported the revolution and should be expected to pay the lion’s share if it succeeds. But U.S. diplomacy may be required to remind them of that responsibility. Hopefully that is on the agenda of Secretary Kerry, who is scheduled to head to the Middle East to build an international coalition to support the fight against the IS.
President Obama is late to the realization that the IS represents a serious threat. But haste should not obscure the need for clarity about goals and plans for peace as well as war.
Josh Rogin and Eli Lake, “Obama Wants New ISIS War Plan ASAP,” Daily Beast, 27 August 2014,
”Other Hostages Are in Danger, White House Official Says,” npr.org, 21 August 2014,