from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Bombing Syria: Better Late Than Never, or Too Little Too Late?

February 22, 2017
7:00 am (EST)

Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

Two years after he was first urged to take action in Syria by his own highest-ranking advisers (as well as critics such as this writer), President Obama has finally done so. The President has now undertaken training and equipping Syrian rebels with a more urgent program, and this week ordered the bombing of ISIS sites inside Syria as well as Iraq.

Better late than never, or too little too late? In my view, it was clear that ISIS has obliterated the border between Syria and Iraq-- so any serious move against the organization had to encompass action in Syria as well. The alternative was to leave Syria as a safe haven for ISIS, guaranteeing the failure of actions against it. Moreover, any humanitarian goals we sought with this military action--protecting vulnerable populations from more ISIS attacks--required weakening ISIS in both countries, because its victims and potential victims lie in both. So I am glad the President acted.

But is the program he has announced sufficient to attain the goals he has also announced? My CFR colleague Max Boot does not think so:

No one doubts that the U.S. can launch air strikes on ISIS. The question is whether those attacks will be effective in degrading and eventually destroying this terrorist group. The answer is: not until there is an effective ground force able to take advantage of the disruption created by American bombs. Until that happens, ISIS will stay on the offensive.

Max persuasively argues that "boots on the ground," if not American then those of some capable force, will also be needed. Combat forces may not be needed, but advisers certainly will be and in the thousands. It is not at all clear that any other forces--Jordanian, Emirati, or Saudi--can actually perform this function that Americans perform so well.

Major questions remain unanswered thus far. First, how will we guarantee that weakening ISIS does not have the effect of strengthening the Assad regime? The plan appears to be to build up rebel forces sufficiently fast to prevent that outcome. Let’s hope it works, but success will require a scale and determination in American effort that has certainly been missing until now. The president’s two years of inaction have allowed ISIS and Assad’s forces to attack and weaken the rebels, and a turnaround may not be quick. (Max discusses this in his article, linked above, at the Commentary web site.) The early bombing targets do appear to have been chosen with this issue in mind, hitting locations where the rebels confronted ISIS rather than locations where they confronted Assad’s army.

Second, how will we know that aid the United States is giving to Syrian rebels does not help ISIS and al-Qaeda-linked groups? It is argued by some American politicians that the United States should not be training and equipping Syrian rebels because we do not know who they are, or which group is which, and are likely to end up strengthening the jihadis. The experts whom I trust, including former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford and former Syria policy coordinator Fred Hof, say this is plain false. They say the U.S. government knows who’s who and have known it for years, which is why both of them have for years been urging help for the non-jihadi, nationalist rebels-- and both quit their positions in the Obama administration in protest against the do-nothing American policy. I believe them, and think even a reader of the press without access to intelligence reporting (American, Jordanian, Saudi, Turkish, Israeli, and Emirati) can identify certain groups worthy of American assistance. The President’s dismissal of those groups of fighters as "former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth" was unworthy of an American leader. They have bravely held on for over two years without U.S. help, and can make use of it now.

A third question is whether the United States and Iran are now allies. The administration denies this, and has also denied that it will weaken its own demands of Iran in the current nuclear talks in order to secure better Iranian conduct in Syria and Iraq. The United States and Iran are not allies, because the United States seeks the end of the Assad regime as well as the defeat of ISIS, and seeks a truly independent Iraq that is not a dependency of Iran. I hope the administration denials are true, and in fact the display of American power and leadership in Iraq and Syria should allow the United States to be even tougher in the nuclear negotiations. They should remind Iran that in the end it is a third world nation of 75 million confronting a superpower. The current display of American power should help stiffen the American positions in the P5+1 negotiations.

A fourth question is what kind of advice the president was getting in the two years of erroneous American policy. The credit and blame for policy are of course ultimately his, but one can still ask about intelligence and military advice. It does seem that the explosive growth of ISIS caught the CIA unawares, a question the congressional intelligence committees might well investigate. Is that correct? And if it is, why did they miss this huge development? On the military side, the United States is now easily attacking targets all over Syria. How was it, then, that Joint Chiefs Chairman Dempsey was telling the president a year ago that such attacks were nearly impossible due to Syria’s fearsome air defense system? (I wrote about this here more than a year ago.)  If he believed that, what were the sources of his misinformation? If there was no such information-- and remember that just then Israel was attacking Syria regularly with apparent impunity-- how could Dempsey make such a misleading argument? This is a question Congressional Armed Services committees should ask.

In a CFR "Expert Brief" on Syria in June, I urged that the United States train and equip the rebels and am glad we are now doing so. I also urged a wider use of power in Syria than solely attacking ISIS:  air attacks "broad enough to greatly restrict Assad’s ability to use air power as an instrument of terror. More broadly, punitive air operations should be considered to force the regime to allow humanitarian aid to quickly reach those who need it. And even more broadly, air strikes can both change the military balance on the ground and affect the political and psychological dimensions of the conflict by demonstrating a new American policy and new determination." It would be illogical now for American air strikes to be hitting ISIS all over Syria but allowing Assad to starve his people or murder them with "barrel bombs" and other uses of air power while we stand by, hitting some target five miles away but ignoring the brutal and inhuman actions of the regime.

There will be no stability in Syria until the Assad regime is gone, because its brutal repression and its murder of vast numbers of Sunnis is a source of instability and a fuel for ISIS. As the United States and our partners strengthen the Syrian rebels, we should at some point recognize an alternative Syrian government and help it bring more and more territory under its control.

In that brief I urged two additional items. It seemed to me important to be clear that the United States is not an ally of Iran, does not seek to be, and will not seek its cooperation through a sweetheart deal on its nuclear program. As noted above, I still believe this to be important, especially as we near the November 24th deadline for the nuclear negotiations. And finally, I urged greater support for Jordan and others bearing the great burden of caring for Syrian refugees. The United States is a generous donor to Jordan, but even greater generosity is both sensible and strategically wise. If the rumors are correct that the Saudis have stopped their aid to Jordan recently, it should be a prime goal of our policy in the region to patch up that relationship and get the funds flowing again. The contribution the Saudis make by a few bombing runs over Syria is symbolically significant, but restoring their billion dollar aid package to Jordan will also be significant and will have an immediate impact.