After a week of talk of eliminating the "cancer" of ISIS, President Obama said Thursday that he was not planning to significantly expand the war against the Islamic extremist movement anytime soon.
His remarks came after days of heated debate inside the top levels of his own national security bureaucracy about how, where, and whether to strike ISIS in Syria. But those deliberations – which included a bleak intelligence assessment of America's potential allies in Syria -- failed to produce a consensus battle plan. And so Obama, who has long been reluctant to enter into the Syrian conflict, told reporters Thursday that “we don’t have a strategy yet” for confronting ISIS on a regional level.
Those inside the administration advocating for going after ISIS in both Iraq and Syria were sorely disappointed – and lamented their boss's lack of urgency in rooting out a threat that only days before was being described in near-apocalyptic terms.
“Senior strategists in the U.S. government have been working hard all week to gather multiple options that the president had asked for to strike ISIS in Syria. There was a deep rooted belief among many -- especially among military circles -- that the ISIS threat can’t be kicked down the road, that it needs to be confronted now, and in a holistic way,” said one Obama administration official who works on the Middle East. “This press conference is going to lead to even more doubt by those that thought that this White House was ready to take meaningful action against ISIS across the board.”
Obama addressed the White House press corps Thursday afternoon just before personally chairing a meeting of his National Security Council, his top cabinet members and national security staffers. The meeting was the culmination of an intense week-long process that included series of lower level meetings and at last one Principals’ Committee that officials described as an effort to convince Obama to expand his air war against ISIS in Iraq to Syria as well.
But before the meeting even started, the president seemed to have made up his mind.
The President said that although he had ordered up options for striking ISIS in Syria, the administration’s priority was shoring up the integrity of Iraq, instead. Syria would have to wait. He also said he would send Secretary of State John Kerry to the region because “We don’t have a strategy yet,” to confront ISIS on a regional level.
To many outside the administration who have worked on Syria and the ISIS problem, Obama’s decision not to decide on a broader course of action will have negative implications for the war against ISIS. The administration raised expectations about altering its three-year policy of avoiding intervention in Syria, before Obama dashed those expectations Thursday.
“One has to wonder what sort of signal this administration is sending to ISIS by using tough rhetoric on one hand and then contravening what top officials just said,” said a former Pentagon official who served in Iraq. “It’s not just demoralizing to those who want to stop ISIS in its tracks, but ISIS is just going to act with greater impunity now if they believe they got a free pass. Every single ISIS leader was watching that.”
There were deep divisions inside the administration's deliberations over Syria. One set of officials advocated for a campaign to decimate ISIS in both countries by striking ISIS targets across Syria. This camp pushed for hitting near Aleppo where they are advancing, and with at least some coordination with the moderate Syrian rebels. The group, which included officials from State Department, intelligence community and some parts of the military, came up with extensive targeting options for the president that included not only ISIS military assets, but their infrastructure, command and control, and their financial capabilities. Even the oil pipelines they use to export crude for cash were on the target list.
Another group of officials -- led by White House and National Security staffers but also including some intelligence and military officials -- favored a more cautious approach that spurned any cooperation with the Free Syrian Army and focused strikes inside Syria on targets near the Iraqi border. The objective: cut off ISIS supply lines to Iraq. That strategy would fall more squarely within the existing limited missions that Obama has already outlined for his war.
Inside the intelligence community, there is a dispute about whether the Free Syrian Army, which has been fighting ISIS in Syria all year with little international support, can be a reliable partner for any military mission inside Syria.
Senior U.S. intelligence officials say the official assessment from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence recommended against working with the Free Syrian Army. "The intelligence community assessment has no serious consideration to work with the Free Syrian Army to date," a senior U.S. intelligence official said. "The folks sitting around the table today do not think we can work with them."
Two administration officials said there was a dissenting view, expressed by others inside the intelligence community, who said there were some vetted armed opposition groups that could be helpful partners in any military mission against ISIS in Syria. Western powers do support some FSA brigades in northern and southern Syria, but when the FSA has fought key battles against ISIS, little if any assistance reached them.
Concerns about working with the FSA in part stem from worries that elements of the opposition have in the past joined forces with Jihadist forces like al-Nusra, al Qaeda's affiliate in Syria. Obama himself has expressed concern about this as well, telling New York Times columnist Tom Friedman earlier this month that arming the moderate Syrian opposition would have made no difference in the civil war there and the idea that moderate rebels could defeat the Assad regime was a “fantasy.”
Rep. Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told The Daily Beast, "There are some elements of the Free Syrian Army, you have to identify and find and vet these individuals, we could work with." But Rogers warned, "It has gotten much more difficult and complicated. Three years ago we had good options, two years ago they were less good options. Today it’s become very difficult.”
The United States does have the intelligence to hit ISIS targets inside Syria, he said, that would include the command and control nodes for ISIS and its supply lines.
“It’s a mixed bag, I think we have packages we can move out smartly on and I think we need more. It’s not complete, we don’t have a full mapping of the place. I think there are targets we could execute against. They are acting like an army, there is a military structure. When that happens you can put target packages together to have an impact,” he said.
Several top officials openly talked about U.S. military strikes in Syria in the days since ISIS beheaded American journalist James Foley in Syria and put out a video about it. On Aug. 21, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said ISIS was an “imminent threat” to U.S. interests and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said that America had to confront ISIS in Syria.
"This is an organization that has an apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision that will eventually have to be defeated," Dempsey said. "Can they be defeated without addressing that part of the organization that resides in Syria? The answer is no."
The next day, Dempsey walked back his remarks, but Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said ISIS’s killing of Foley constituted a “terrorist attack” on the United States and promised vengeance.
“If you come after Americans, we’re going to come after you, wherever you are,” Rhodes said Aug 22. “We’re actively considering what’s going to be necessary to deal with that threat, and we’re not going to be restricted by borders.”
Obama struck a markedly different tone Thursday when asked about whether he would expand the war against ISIS into Syria, where the group has the vast majority of its personnel, equipment, and resources.
“My priority at this point is to make sure that the gains that ISIL made in Iraq are rolled back,” he said, using another common acronym for ISIS. “But when we look at a broader strategy… clearly ISIL has come to represent the very worst elements in the region that we have to deal with collectively. And that's going to be a long-term project. It's going to require us to stabilize Syria in some fashion. And stabilizing Syria in some fashion means that we've got to get moderate Sunnis who are able to govern and offer, you know, a real alternative and competition to what ISIL's been doing in some of these spaces.”
Obama said there could be a military element of a broader strategy to defeat ISIS in Syria whenever the administration comes up with such a strategy. He also pledged to continue to help aid the Syrian opposition but didn’t say that Assad should leave power and he didn’t talk at all about a political process to end the Syrian civil war.
Leaders of the Syrian opposition said Obama’s policy of stopping the war against ISIS at the increasingly irrelevant Iraq-Syria border is allowing ISIS free rein to expand its presence and atrocities all over Syria. That's especially near Aleppo and the border with Turkey, where the FSA is fighting ISIS now.
“The whole international community should act against ISIS in Iraq and Syria at the same time. Their advance inside Syria needs to be halted and the only way to do that is to conduct airstrikes against their forces,” Hadi AlBahra, the President of the Syrian National Coalition, told The Daily Beast in an interview. “The political process is in a coma… As long as the regime continues in power, these terrorist organizations will grow in power and size, and the problem that started in Syria and crossed now into Iraq and Lebanon, will soon move across the region and eventually into Europe and the U.S.”