from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

On Attacking the "Islamic State" in Syria

August 23, 2014

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The threat to the United States and to American interests from the “Islamic State” is now obvious and has been acknowledged by President Obama and his entire administration. The Attorney General and the Secretary of Homeland Security have stated that there is a threat to the homeland, and the President has spoken about the brutality of this group in commenting on its beheading of the American journalist James Foley.

It’s also obvious that IS grew in Syria and then snowballed, moving first into Iraq. Its size is now variously estimated at 10,000 to over 20,000. The growth of IS in Syria was materially aided by the Assad regime, as The Wall Street Journal reported today. In a story headlined “Assad Aided Rise of Militants,” the Journal tells us that IS “gained momentum early on from a calculated decision by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to go easy on it….”

It’s also now acknowledged by the Obama administration that IS cannot be defeated unless and until it is attacked in Syria. The air strikes the United States is now conducting against IS in Iraq, and help to the Kurds, will not be sufficient. Here’s what the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, said this past week in a press conference:

Q: General, do you believe that ISIS can be defeated or destroyed without addressing the cross-border threat from Syria? And is it possible to contain them?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Let me start from where you ended and end up where you started. It is possible contain -- to contain them. And I think we’ve seen that their momentum was disrupted. And that’s not to be discounted, by the way, because the -- it was the momentum itself that had allowed them to be -- to find a way to encourage the Sunni population of western Iraq and Nineveh province to accept their brutal tactics and -- and their presence among them.

So you ask -- yes, the answer is they can be contained, not in perpetuity. This is an organization that has an apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision and which will eventually have to be defeated. To your question, can they be defeated without addressing that part of their organization which resides in Syria? The answer is no. That will have to be addressed on both sides of what is essentially at this point a nonexistent border.

And that will come when we have a coalition in the region that takes on the task of defeating ISIS over time. ISIS will only truly be defeated when it’s rejected by the 20 million disenfranchised Sunni that happen to reside between Damascus and Baghdad.

Q: And that requires airstrikes (OFF-MIKE)

GEN. DEMPSEY: It requires a variety of instruments, only one small part of which is airstrikes. I’m not predicting those will occur in Syria, at least not by the United States of America. But it requires the application of all of the tools of national power -- diplomatic, economic, information, military.

All of this is a reminder of just how dangerous and indeed disastrous the Obama administration’s Syria policy has been. The death toll in Syria is now estimated by the United Nations at 191,000 (though other sources believe it’s much higher) and an incredible 9 million Syrians have been driven from or fled their homes due to the war. To that humanitarian price we must now add that the Obama hands-off policy has allowed IS to metastasize to the point where it is now a serious threat.

It is worth recalling the way this happened, and given Gen. Dempsey’s statement quoted above some of his previous statements are worth noting. I wrote about this at the time, here,  in a blog entry entitled “Syria and the 700 sorties."

On June 18, 2013, about 14 months ago, Jeffrey Goldberg reported a story entitled “Pentagon Shoots Down Kerry’s Syria Airstrike Plan.” Here’ the key excerpt:

Flash-forward to this past Wednesday. At a principals meeting in the White House situation room, Secretary of State John Kerry began arguing, vociferously, for immediate U.S. airstrikes against airfields under the control of Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime -- specifically, those fields it has used to launch chemical weapons raids against rebel forces.

It was at this point that the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the usually mild-mannered Army General Martin Dempsey, spoke up, loudly. According to several sources, Dempsey threw a series of brushback pitches at Kerry, demanding to know just exactly what the post-strike plan would be and pointing out that the State Department didn’t fully grasp the complexity of such an operation.

Dempsey informed Kerry that the Air Force could not simply drop a few bombs, or fire a few missiles, at targets inside Syria: To be safe, the U.S. would have to neutralize Syria’s integrated air-defense system, an operation that would require 700 or more sorties. At a time when the U.S. military is exhausted, and when sequestration is ripping into the Pentagon budget, Dempsey is said to have argued that a demand by the State Department for precipitous military action in a murky civil war wasn’t welcome.

Why didn’t the president, who was strongly opposed to any intervention in Syria, use Dempsey’s comments to support his own stance? Here’s Goldberg again: “One senior administration official explained it this way: The White House doesn’t want Dempsey to make an enthusiastic case on “Meet the Press” against intervention, just in case Obama one day decides to follow Kerry’s advice and get more deeply involved. At that point, Dempsey’s arguments against greater involvement could come back to haunt the administration.”

I suppose they could, if anyone remembered. Dempsey 2013 was telling us that attacking in Syria was nearly impossible. Dempsey 2014 seems to be saying that IS cannot be stopped unless we attack in Syria.

The Dempsey 2013 argument was embarrassing and ridiculous. As I wrote in that blog entry at the time,

the “700 sortie” argument is an old Pentagon line, updated for this particular argument about Syria, that can be translated simply as “I don’t want to.” As Goldberg noted, it is impossible to believe that Israel can do three air strikes in Syria (apparently stand-off strikes from beyond Syria’s borders) but the U.S. Air Force cannot do one–until it makes 700 sorties to take down Syrian air defenses. Israel lacks our stealth bombers; Israel does not have the mix of ground to ground or air to ground missiles that we do; Israel lacks the naval strength we have in the Sixth Fleet.

Since then Israel has done more air strikes, without losing a plane, making the argument that we just cannot do anything in Syria even more absurd. The argument lives on: in The Washington Post today we find that air strikes in Syria are impossible because of the danger not to our airmen but to our drones:

An expanded covert program that would allow Islamic State forces to be targeted by drones, such as the CIA effort against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan, is deemed risky. Not only do the extremists have surface-to-air missiles, but Assad’s forces control the air over Syria.

Once again here is the argument that Assad’s air defenses and air force make any attack in Syria impossibly risky; once again I wonder how the Israelis then manage it without losing an aircraft. Moreover, the United States possesses drones and cruise missiles in part so that we can strike in places where the risks to manned aircraft are deemed too high. The argument that Assad’s air defenses make Syria too dangerous for our drones is simply stating what Dempsey was really saying back in June 2013: “I don’t want to."

There are a number of lessons here. One is that the President’s policies on Syria have been disastrous for Syrians, Iraqis, and now for the United States—starting with James Foley’s execution but now presenting a real threat to the homeland. Another is that the American military should not be permitted to make policy arguments camouflaged as military advice, as Dempsey did back in 2013 in saying we’d need “700 sorties” before anything could be done in Syria. Now Dempsey is saying something must be done there if IS is to be defeated. As the Obama administration weighs additional military action in Syria, he may well have to eat those words.

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