The House of Representatives last night approved an amendment to a broader bill that will allow the government to fund the training of Syrian rebels who will serve as the primary fighting force for the United States against the Islamic State inside Syria. This measure is a major piece, if not the keystone, of President Obama’s four point strategy laid out in a prime time speech to combat the Islamic State. It is also the final piece to the president’s strategy as the other three do not require congressional approval – which of course is debatable. Now that the military strategy is beginning to take shape, how will it play out and what can the American people expect?
Over the course of the past week, the Congress has held a series of hearings calling on several administration officials and experts to weigh in on what is needed to defeat the Islamic State and how the administration’s strategy fairs in achieving this goal. The arming of vetted Syrian rebels has been hailed as the best worst option absent American and Arab troops on the ground. When asked by Congressman Jeff Miller (R-FL) at a House Intelligence Committee hearing on Thursday if Arab partners can get more out front in the fight against the Islamic State, former Ambassador Ryan Crocker stated “not anytime soon.” Crocker also acknowledged that with the passage of funds for Syrian rebel training in the House, which Crocker has long supported, the US will have to lead and be in the forefront of the fight in order to convince the Arab partners that the US is fully committed. Arab nations will engage more over time, Crocker noted, but the US must prove they are in the fight for the long term. Retired General James Mattis also stated at the hearing that some Arab nations may eventually commit ground troops but those nations are first looking at the United States for assurance.
Several have been critical of the president’s insistence of zero ground troops, despite contrary recommendations by military officials. General Mattis stated at the House Intelligence Committee hearing that one should never announce to adversaries what one is not willing to do. General Mattis later reiterated that the administration’s strategy has many of the right elements but does not go far enough. In addressing the use of American troops to train and equip rebels who are inferior to American soldiers, the General stated the Islamic State militants are not great fighters either and the vetted rebels to be trained by the United States only have to be better than the enemy.
All witnesses at Thursday’s Intelligence Committee hearing spoke on the importance of the coalition and that each part of the plan cannot be successful on its own. In addition, due to the complexity of the situation on the ground in Syria, the hearing’s witness and many other experts believe the conflict may take several years. Andrew Tabler, Senior Fellow, Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, stated this week at a policy forum hosted by the Brookings Institution that the Syrian conflict could, in his estimate, last for another five years but would not be surprised if it lasts for a decade or more. Furthermore, Tabler believes that Syria will not emerge the same at the conclusion of the conflict stating that those in Syria are not capable of putting it back together.
The US has made holding Iraq intact a firm priority, but its strategy in Syria has not been as clear. As far as what can be gleaned from the administration’s strategy inside Syria, the main priority is to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State. There are still several variables in terms of a campaign inside Syria such as the Assad regime’s reaction to a breach of its sovereignty, the response from Syria’s allies to the sovereignty breach, and what will happen once the Islamic State is defeated.
Many legislators have asked administration officials at hearings over the past week about Assad and his military, which possess advanced anti-aircraft equipment that would pose a direct threat to manned American aircraft. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey stated earlier this week that the United States military would mount rescue missions for individuals shot down by anti-aircraft equipment in Syria. Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) has introduced new legislation to authorize force against the Islamic State and despite not authorizing ground troops, Kaine carves out an exception for rescue missions. Additionally, how will the administration address air attacks by the Assad regime against the Syrian rebels it will train? It has not been clear if the weapons that will go to rebels will be strictly for fighting the Islamic State, or could also, and likely, be used against the Assad regime, which will implicate the United States directly in regime change. General Mattis stated that he does not think the rebels will need to be supplied with anti-aircraft capabilities but was only responding to a question regarding the credibility of the Islamic State mounting air attacks, not the Assad regime, which has lately escalated their brutal air campaign.
Regarding Syria’s allies, Russia has stated that US strikes inside Syria would be considered an act of aggression. Iran is also a pivotal ally of Assad and the United States could jeopardize a permanent nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic if things sour over Syria. In fact, Iranian militias have already issued a stern warning to the US to stay out of Iraq and not reoccupy the country in efforts to combat the Islamic State on that front. Many experts believe that a permanent nuclear deal between six world powers and Iran is the breakthrough diplomatic moment that will ease tensions in the region and reintegrate Iran as a normal nation, which Paul Pillar, former CIA veteran, reiterated at a policy discussion hosted by the Woodrow Wilson Center this week. Failure to reach a deal could threaten the US allies in the region.
Lastly, what will happen if the Islamic State is defeated in Syria? There are still several other anti-American adversaries that could/should be addressed such as Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, Ahrar al-Sham, another radical rebel group with close ties to the Nusra Front, and of course, the Assad regime. President Obama, in an interview with Thomas Friedman recently, reflected on his intervention in Libya to oust Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi alongside NATO. “So that’s a lesson that I now apply every time I ask the question, ‘Should we intervene militarily? Do we have an answer [for] the day after,'” Obama told Friedman. The witnesses at Thursday’s Intelligence Committee hearing stated that the administration’s strategy will likely change as the conflict progresses. As situations on the ground change, as more partners become more engaged (or disengaged) and as Congress weighs in with legislation pertaining to authorizing what the administration can do, the administration will have to reassess its plan. The president should be mindful to not forget what he stated to Friedman.
The Islamic State is not invincible. General Mattis stated that they are vulnerable as they control more territory and stretch themselves thinner. However, they are a formidable fighting force unlike any other terrorist group the United States has seen. Their tactics are likely to sponsor lone wolf actors and their draw of foreign fighters makes them a “unique threat” according to Ambassador Crocker. The Islamic State can be defeated but a clear strategy must be thought out to prevent reactionary efforts. While Congress continues to debate the use of force, it is clear that with the House’s passage of the Syrian rebel funding measure and the indication the Senate will replicate, Congress is on board with military action though not overtly authorizing it. With the fourth, and arguably the most important, measure of the president’s plan almost set in place, the new offensive will be underway. For the sake of the 4,000 plus lives lost and billions spent in Iraq and Afghanistan, hopefully the United States has learned how to better engage in the region. My estimate is they have not.