Analysis: US plunges reluctantly, but definitively, into Syria

After years of fear and hesitating, Obama's National Security Council determines the US has no other choice than to fight Islamic State on its home turf.

September 11, 2014 05:39
3 minute read.
White House

President Barack Obama walks through the Cross Hall of the White House, Aug. 8, 2013. (photo credit: OFFICIAL WHITE HOUSE PHOTO BY PETE SOUZA)

WASHINGTON -- Without law, order or a semblance of governance, Syria has become a medieval problem that President Barack Obama acknowledged tonight he can no longer ignore.

In an historic address delivered to the American people thirteen years after September 11, Obama's new battle against Islamic State in Syria amounts to the boldest foreign policy shift of his presidency: the opening of a war front against a country the United States has never before attacked, without approval to do so from Congress or from the country's nominal government.

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In Iraq, too, the president has gone all-in against the threat of Islamists: "If there is an ISIL [Islamic State] target that we need to hit in Iraq, we will hit it," one senior Obama administration official said.

Going forward, likely for years to come, borderlands that once divided Iraq and Syria will now be targets of the US Air Force.

"This is something that the president has decided to do," said another official, preparing White House reporters for impending strikes against targets in Syria at a time of the president's choosing. "There should be no mistake that the United States is prepared to take action on both sides of that border."

By ordering strikes against the metastasizing Islamic State terror network at its heart— al-Raqqa is the group's capital, where its leadership resides— Obama will not be seeking to topple the Syrian government. But he will be violating its sovereignty, an act of war by any definition.

He will have support from around the world: France and Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Australia, Britain, Jordan and dozens more will participate in the third military coalition operating in the region in 24 years.

But this war front will be like none seen before: the targeting of cities by air alone, over a period of several years, relying on an army of locals the White House hopes to build through aid not yet funded or guaranteed.

Over nearly six years as president, Obama has ordered his national security team to provide all possible contingencies resulting from the use of force before ordering military action— even in the smallest of operations. Repelled by the range of possible consequences, he has repeatedly rejected not only using force, but supporting the aggressive military arming of fledgling US allies, including Syria's moderate rebels.

Nevertheless, in historic time, a societal vacuum in eastern Syria has bred an army of 10-18,000 terrorists seeking the imprisonment of women, the murder of dissenting men and a fundamental reshuffling of the Middle East.

Initial targets are the governments in Damascus, Amman, Riyadh and Jerusalem. And— justifying this mission— the group has broadly threatened Washington and New York.

Powers worldwide share in the blame for the creation of that vacuum, including the US. Obama's former secretaries at the State Department at the Pentagon both say the president could have done more to foster moderate groups and prevent the growth of Islamic State.

By deciding he has no other choice but to go on the offensive against Islamic State, Obama has acknowledged that inaction is a policy in and of itself.

In his abandoning caution, slow calculus and his fears of mission creep, the president will now own an operation that promises a host of unintended consequences.

US intelligence agencies currently have no indications that the group has specific plans to launch attacks against the West. A US-led campaign on its capital region in al-Raqqa might change that.

What becomes of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad, who is also fighting the group, remains a topic unaddressed publicly by the Obama administration. Surely, strikes solely targeted against his most powerful adversary will reinforce his hold on power, which Washington opposes.

And whether that action in Syria, and the defense of Baghdad, will establish new relations between the US and Iran remains to be seen. No doubt, such a development would impact negotiations with Tehran over its nuclear program.

No outcomes are guaranteed in the Middle East. But in a new posture of offense, Obama is inviting new contingencies that his team cannot accurately predict.

Without that comfort, the president will be stepping out of character once US planes enter Syrian air space. Perhaps no scenario is a better test of leadership.

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