Last night, President Obama authorized both manned and unmanned surveillance flights over Syria as a potential precursor to air strikes against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS). This action suggests that U.S. policymakers have come to the conclusion that the border between Iraq and Syria will no longer be a barrier to U.S. operations.
As the United States contemplates its next steps and longer-term strategy, here are three points to bear in mind:
1. ISIS is a savvy, quasi-state enemy. The rapid expansion and evolution of ISIS has challenged Western paradigms: both our conventional understanding of “warfare” and the way we conceive of “states.” In order to effectively combat ISIS, the United States must be equally adaptive, appreciating that ISIS defies many of the labels by which threats have traditionally been defined.
What does this mean in a practical sense? For a start, since Assad has demonstrated he is unable to govern and keep the peace within Syria, the United States need not validate the regime’s legitimacy by acknowledging Assad’s threat that, “Any strike which is not coordinated with the government will be considered as aggression.” In the longer term, U.S. policymakers should also explore ways to check ISIS’s immensely successful propaganda machine, which, as Emerson Brooking recently detailed, has become a significant strategic asset to the organization.
2. There’s a difference between stopping and ending the Islamic State. As the articulated goals of U.S. operations have evolved from protecting U.S. personnel and preventing an imminent genocide to potentially halting and even reversing ISIS’s momentum, calls of “mission creep” have grown. But adapting one’s strategy to a rapidly growing threat is not always “mission creep.” In the face of clear aggression, it is simply national defense.
That said, overreacting is as much a threat as not acting at all. Developing a long term political and military strategy that builds on short-term operational gains, brings regional and international leaders into the effort, and relies on local troops more than American boots on the ground will be critical.
In the short term, air strikes in coordination with Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces have proven very effective against ISIS’s massed forces advancing through the open desert. Going forward, such strikes will be less useful against ground forces operating in densely populated areas, as much of ISIS leadership now is in places like its headquarters city of Raqqa, Syria. As Aaron Miller writes, “[ISIS] is now ensconced in its host Syrian environment like a barnacle attached to the side of a boat.”
Actually defeating ISIS will be the work of years, not weeks or months. It will require strong support to Kurdish forces and political conciliation in the new Iraqi government. It will also require undermining ISIS recruitment by appealing to moderate Islamic groups, and ultimately, finding a tenable solution to the so far intractable problem of the Syrian Civil War. None of this will happen in the short term. President Obama’s repeated message that this will take time indicates that the administration recognizes the need to craft a realistic long-term, multi-element strategy.
3. The threat to the United States shouldn’t be understated—but it shouldn’t be sensationalized, either. To be clear, the ISIS “army” is not capable of invading the United States or launching a conventional war against the U.S. homeland. It is not an existential threat.
Still, although the FBI states that ISIS does not present an immediate credible threat against the United States, there is no doubt that the terrorist quasi-state, who has threatened to “drown all of you [Americans] in blood” has the means and the stated ambition to attack. Recall that the United States dismissed overt declarations of war by Osama bin Laden during the 1990s – after all, how could a non-state organization led by a “cranky guy in a cave” declare war?
ISIS, in contrast has far more resources than al Qaeda had in 2001. Moreover, as the Center for a New American Security concludes in a new policy brief, the 3,000 radicalized Westerners currently fighting for ISIS constitute a clear threat should they decide to bring their fight home.
Understanding and mitigating this danger to the homeland will require a delicate balance between preserving civil liberties and homeland security. This in turn requires an open and honest conversation with the American people.
For more discussion on the U.S. short and long term options against the Islamic State, see my recent appearance on Defense News TV, along with Kathleen Hicks, Jim Thomas, and Joel Rayburn: