Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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On Attacking the “Islamic State” in Syria

by Elliott Abrams
August 23, 2014


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.

Post a Comment 10 Comments

  • Posted by Agonafer

    Dempsey’s argument that IS needs to be attacked in Syria in order to contain it does not contradict his argument that air strikes in Syria are risky. Air strikes in Syria are risky but necesary. Two completely different arguments.

  • Posted by Adam

    Thank you for writing this piece; I was hoping you would. The doubts expressed in this blog in 2013 about both Obama’s and Dempsey’s judgement vis-a-vis the Syria problem have proven prescient. Looking the other way while sunni jihadis carved out a safe haven and territorial base in the ME was folly. Both POTUS and COJCOS have blundered mightily on an issue of national security, and the latter would do well to consider retiring from his position.

    No one can guarantee that supporting the Free Syrian Army would have prevented this scenario, but ‘sitting on our hands’ has definitely been shown to be wrong and utterly misguided.

  • Posted by Paul

    Attack ISIS and ISIS only. This is honestly the West’s last chance to gain credibility. Do Not pull a Libya or Iraq and change your mission once its begun. That is dishonesty at its most detestable level.

    We don’t trust the leaders nor will we fall for one of Obamas “emotional”, “meaningful speeches” on why we must know bomb Assad. You lost the Assad debate it is over.

    Westerners appreciate SECULAR Assads support for minorities and targeting would purely be in Israel’s interests. Again we know this. Believe me the West has nearly lost it’s public, play games and its gones. When it’s gone pandoras box will explode.

    Be mindful the people are awakening and deceitfully going after Assad and lying to us will be the final straw. I implore Western leaders to get this because we are running out of time to save a sinking ship.

  • Posted by Dean Smallwood

    It’s quite possible that Dempsey ( who I consider a “weak sister” to begin with ) doesn’t trust his Commander in Chief to approve a workable , coordinated air / ground operation which would be necessary and successful in defeating ISIL . On the other hand , Obama has been paying too much attention to “national security advisors” ( Tom Donilon , Ben Rhodes and Tony Blinken ) who are nothing more than political hacks who know NOTHING about national security .

  • Posted by Jassem Othman

    “The threat to the United States…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..”

    Mr. Abrams, it’s great this administration has acknowledged the War on terrorists. Good grief, they always were seeking to undoing the policies of President George W. Bush-era on foreign policy and the battle on terrorism. But apparently, there is NO escape from confronting the terrorist threats to the country and to its vital interests. This means that they follow those aggressive policies which were previously criticized by the same ilk of men and also by many other of wimps whose were and still accomplice to evil, among them “policymakers, journalists, academics and pundits.” This sort of accomplices and defeatists have considered President George W. Bush’s war on this evil “in a military aggression of American imperialism and the state terrorism, in a war on humanity and on the basic principles of justice.” But in fact the war was legal and moral against an enemy whose rejoices in the slaughter of the innocent. It was a war on one of evil regimes that constitutes a real threat to international security and were aspiring to acquire weapons of mass destruction in order to destroy the United States and Israel. It was a moral war to defend human liberty against bloodthirsty regimes that did not grant its people a decent human life, against a bloody tyrants who tyrannized their people, massacred them, oppressed them and impoverished them. It was a war on inhuman barbaric creatures whose are seeking world domination through worldwide Islamic terrorism, where they intending to bring down the Zionist-Crusader America by hook or by crook. It was a war on Islamist militants who want the destruction of everything in the world that is good, and intends to replace it with a radical barbaric ideology with unalterable objectives.

    The great administration of President George W. Bush was always resolved to confront every threat and from any source that could pose a threat to American national security, and seeks to intimidate the world. The greatest threat came from these rogue States; Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Iraq, Libya and Sudan, they have given shelter and support for terrorists. Afghanistan and Iraq was just the forefront of this battle. So it is great to enact a more aggressive policies against evil regimes and organizations.

  • Posted by Tyler P. Harwell

    Indeed, he has, if today’s Fox News report is to be credited with accuracy. Or let me be more accurate: he is said to have stated aboard a plane bound somewhere, that what the Secretary of Defense said at last Friday’s press conference was not accurate: ISIS really does not pose a threat to the United States “at this time”.

    I guess that is because Mr. Foley is now dead.

    This reminds me of what President Obama said back in May to the leaders of Europe: to paraphrase, ‘Russia is not a world power. Russia is merely a regional power. And I do not worry about Russia’.

    Thus is was Chuck Hagel’s words he was forced to eat; not his own.

    And who forced him to eat them ? My guess: Susan Rice, the head of the President’s “in-house” war council. The lesson: if you work for the President, do not get out in front of him on any issue of importance.

    Thus, it seems that instead of being a carefully orchestrated introduction to an upcoming Presidential decision, last Friday’s news conference was more in the way of a palace coup – that has failed.

    Query, when does Martin Dempsey’s term expire ? My guess is that we will not be hearing much more from him on this subject.

    Conclusion: It is the President who just does not want to get the United States involved in Syria, any more than he is happy to have it presently involved once again in Iraq. And there are obvious parallels in his reasoning for this: the lack of a government he wishes to support.

    r/s TPH

  • Posted by Tyler P. Harwell

    It gets worse.

    Turkish newspapers have picked up the story, and are running it under the headline:

    American General Say ISIS Is a Regional Threat, Only, and the US Will Not Take Further Actions Against it Unless and Until it Poses a Direct Threat to the United States.

    See Hurriyet English Language edition.

    Great. So the top US military officer has said that the US will not act to address a threat posed to a NATO ally other than itself, unless it also amounts to a threat to the United States.

    This statement, in the language of contracts, is what is called “anticipatory breach”. And the contract term that it breaches is the mutual defense clause of the North Atlantic Treaty. The Obama administration has just told the Turks not to rely on NATO for anything.

    There are dozens of Turkish citizens now being held hostage by ISIS. And ISIS can go out and get more any time it wants.

    r/s TPH

  • Posted by Peter Duveen

    One wonders whether Congressional approval would be sought if the United States commits itself to an act of war against another country. Then, there is generally the requirement that a UN Security Council resolution must be obtained authorizing military intervention in a sovereign state. Are any of these meaningful restrictions on what the Obama Administration might carry out, and do they perhaps account for the foot-dragging, as some may see it, regarding the actions recommended in Mr.Abrams’s essay?

  • Posted by Bobby Dias

    ““Islamic State” in Syria” is misleading because the Sunni/ISIS have lived in an area that overlaps both sides of the border for a thousand years, except for the last 12 years when the Shia-controlled Iraq Army chased them out of Iraq when Bush sent US troops into Iraq(the Iraq Army had nothing to do- so—). The border was ignored by the Sunnis and others of the region- who cared what the outsiders said about a border being there on a piece of paper?
    About calling them terrorists- the Sunni/ISIS do not care if you or anybody else is scared. They took back the land that they were born in and raised in, period. About the Mosul/formerly the Sadamm Dam- the Sunni paid for it- I was an advisor on the strength and stability of the dam before it was built. I made a few small changes in the plans- all no charge. The Sunni/ISIS are merely trying to take back what the Shia of Iraq stole from them. STOLE.

  • Posted by Jerome

    The threat of ISIS to US interests is extremely exaggerated despite its impressive and swift gains in Iraq and Syria within a short period of time and despite the “globalization” of its recruiting campaign.
    ISIS main nemesis during this juncture is the Shi’ite establishment represented by the pro-Iran Iraqi government and Iran’s strategic allies in the region, Assad and Hezbollah.
    Despite their violent rhetoric and ruthless conquests, their threat is limited and is containable should the group succeeds in usurping the power in Baghdad and Syria. For one, the group is just a militia, not a military power that can defends itself against the military might of the US, or another regional power, such as Israel.
    ISIS can be exploited as a strategic asset to the very least weaken, if not destroy, the tripartite alliance of Iran-Syria-Hezbollah. Iran has been the principal destabilizing force in Iraq, despite its cooperation with the US directly and indirectly through its Iraqi agents to topple Saddam Hussein. The ISIS quest is to reverse the rise of the “neo Safavids”. The group is not conducting global terrorism, but attacking the Shi’ites in Iraq and destabilizing the Alawite-regime in Damascus.
    The ayatollahs shot two birds with one stone in Iraq. They helped destroy a major obstacle to their regional ambitions, and they controlled the country in the aftermath, creating a “Shi’ite corridor” that stretches from Tehran to Southern Lebanon. And let us not forget that it was the ayatollahs who commanded their Iraqi agents to attack US troops in Iraq in the post-invasion period at different times. Furthermore, the focus on ISIS seems to detract the public from the real threat of Iran as a rising regional military power who is allied with Russia and China and North Korea. Iran is also an economic power by virtue of its natural resources.
    Iran is also exploiting the current war between Israel and Hamas to its own advantage. Iran has become the biggest player in the region, and the US is encouraging this, over and over again.
    The US may feel indebted to Tehran and Sistani because they helped it remove Saddam Hussein. They were seeking their own interests, so should the US.
    Destroying Iran will ultimately lead to two things: (1) the destruction of the tripartite alliance, and (2) reducing the threat of the new Eastern bloc to US interests.

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