President Obama wants to decide by the end of the week whether or not his war in Iraq against the Islamic State will expand to the group’s haven in eastern Syria. But nearly everything about the potential military campaign is still in flux, administration officials tell The Daily Beast—from the goals of the effort to the intelligence needed to carry it out.
ISIS’s murder of American photojournalist James Foley and its continued military expansion have pushed the administration into an urgent drive to take action against the Islamic extremists in Syria. Despite the new urgency, the plans for such a strike are far from complete. In a series of high-level meetings Tuesday—including one gathering of the Principals’ Committee, the administration's top national security officials—White House staffers and cabinet secretaries alike struggled to come up with answers to basic questions about the potential strikes. Among the unresolved issues: whether the U.S. has reliable intelligence on ISIS targets in Syria; what the objectives and limits of the strikes would be; and how the administration would defend the action legally, diplomatically, and politically.
One huge unanswered question is whether the president will order the attacks, or whether he will ultimately balk, as he did this time last year after preparing for limited strikes against the Bashar al-Assad regime. One administration official working on Syria policy said the purpose of the meetings Tuesday was “to convince one man, Barack Obama,” to follow through on the rhetoric and widen the aims of the war to include destroying ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. While Obama and his top officials have said they will need to address the threat of ISIS on both sides of the Iraq/Syria border, Obama has not said specifically what that means.
Two administration officials tell The Daily Beast that the Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence community are developing options to widen the war to be considered by Obama’s war cabinet this week. On Monday evening, The Wall Street Journal first reported—and The Daily Beast has confirmed—that the U.S. has flown surveillance aircraft into Syrian territory, part of the administration’s rush to come up with intelligence that could be used in any strikes.
Unlike in Iraq—where U.S. airstrikes are closely coordinated with Iraqi and Kurdish forces on the ground—the Obama administration has not yet consulted with ISIS’s opponents in Syria about possible strikes.
“Nobody has talked to us about carrying out airstrikes [in Syria], up to this moment,” Hadi AlBahra, president of the Syrian National Coalition, told The Daily Beast in an interview Tuesday. “If I were in their place, I would talk to us, because we are on the ground and we are in a better position to tell them where the ISIS forces are.”
Absent direct guidance from the president, officials can’t even be sure what the objectives of airstrikes would be beyond retaliation against ISIS. Officials are also trying to game out how both ISIS and the Assad regime would react. The State Department on Tuesday denied reports it was considering coordinating on ISIS with the Assad regime.
“They should work and coordinate with the Free Syrian Army”—the moderate opponents to Assad—“to make sure there will be no collateral damage, to make sure they are targeting the right spots and the right forces. Coordinating operations with the FSA on the ground will also bring more success to the entire operation,” said AlBahra. “Right now, the Free Syrian Army are the only ones fighting ISIS inside Syria.”
The ISIS threat metastasized so quickly, the U.S. doesn’t even have confidence that it could locate top ISIS leaders and strategic assets if the president decides to go. The administration’s sudden urgency comes after years of avoiding direct intervention inside Syria, making the prospects of conducting effective attacks much more difficult.
“There are a lot of risks if you don’t have sufficient information,” said Brian Katulis, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “There was no clear pathway of options that the U.S. and this president seemed willing to take to stop this civil war from spiraling out of control and causing the collapse of Syria. Now we’ve got a failed state and Assad still in power.”
Former State and Defense Department official Vikram Singh added, “The advantage of taking action against ISIS on both sides of the now nonexistent border is that acting solely on one side of the border will have much less impact, if any… The downside is that you find yourself inadvertently helping Assad.”
Obama said this month that his new war against ISIS would include a counter-terrorism component as well. One former senior U.S. diplomat who has consulted with the administration on the ISIS threat told The Daily Beast that he would expect Obama to be presented with an option similar to Vice President Joe Biden’s favored policy from 2010 for Afghanistan known then as counter-terrorism plus. This kind of approach would be a drone and air campaign against ISIS targets in Syria. The United States has conducted drone and airstrikes in Yemen, Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia, and Afghanistan. But in all of these cases the host government has requested them. This week, Syria’s foreign minister warned the United States not to enter Syrian air space.
Another factor Obama will have to consider if he does approve airstrikes in Syria will be whether he needs a congressional resolution to authorize a sustained air campaign. For the recent strikes in Iraq, Obama has relied on the inherent authorities in Article II of the Constitution, which asserts the president’s role as commander in chief of the military.
While there are some similarities to the dilemma Obama faced a year ago after the Syrian regime gassed civilians outside of Damascus, there is also an important difference. As Michael Morell, the former deputy director of the CIA, told 60 Minutes last year, he was concerned that if the Assad regime collapsed, then it would create a further haven for al Qaeda. This time around, the leadership of the CIA and the FBI, and the secretaries of state and defense, have all argued that ISIS presents a threat to the United States—particularly because the group has attracted so many Westerners to join its jihad. Over the weekend, San Diego native Douglas McAuthur McCain became the latest American citizen to die fighting for ISIS in Syria.