War Stories

Obama Shouldn’t Bomb ISIS in Syria

We have no strategy for intervening there, and no reason to think it will work.

President Barack Obama addresses the nation from the State Dining Room of the White House on Aug. 7, 2014.

Photo by Mike Theiler/Getty Images

Let’s hope that President Obama does not bomb ISIS inside Syria—unless, maybe, the airstrikes are coordinated with some other country’s troops on the ground. That’s what happened in northern Iraq last week, when U.S. airstrikes paved the way for a mix of Iraqi special forces, Shiite militias, and Kurdish peshmerga fighters to push ISIS away from the Mosul Dam. But that’s not likely to happen in Syria.

It’s not likely to happen for two reasons, both lamentable. First, there are no ground forces inside Syria that can both repel ISIS and serve as palatable American allies. Second, the Obama administration and the neighboring Middle Eastern countries appear to have no strategy of what an intervention in Syria might look like or of what Syrian politics should look like in its aftermath.

That is a particular shame, since the United States and just about every country in the region could form a very potent alliance against ISIS. They all hate and fear the al-Qaida offshoot that calls itself the Islamic State. They all share an interest in seeing the group pummeled. But in many of these countries, domestic politics or conflicting interests on other matters impede such an alliance from forming.

A strange alliance—which could include the United States, Iran, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Israel, and Saudi Arabia—is at least conceptually feasible in Iraq, assuming its new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, forms a government that seems inclusive and responsive to Shiite and Sunni leaders. If Abadi manages this feat (and the bloody sectarian violence in recent days dampens its prospects), this hypothetical alliance—which includes Sunni and Shiite nations, among others—would be fighting not just against ISIS but also for a stable and potentially amenable Iraq.

One problem with mounting a similar coalition—or even unilateral American action—against ISIS in Syria is precisely this question: Who benefits? Who, or what, would the war be fought for? Syrian President Bashar al-Assad? He would be the biggest beneficiary, but he’s also a mass murderer (very awkward for Obama, who once said “Assad must go”) and Iran’s leading Shiite ally (unpalatable to the region’s Sunni leaders). As for the “moderate” anti-Assad rebels, they don’t seem to be an organized, or perhaps even organizable, force, and perhaps they never were. (If Obama had listened to his advisers and armed these rebels last year, it’s quite likely that the weapons would have wound up in ISIS arsenals by now, just like the U.S.-supplied armored vehicles that the Iraqi army abandoned at ISIS’s first onslaught.)

This is a cold thing to say, but too many countries have an interest in keeping Syria a cauldron of chaos—as long as the brew doesn’t boil over to other countries. Which is why focusing on ISIS in Iraq is a more promising possibility.

Obama’s May 28 speech at West Point is worth a second look. Many pundits derided it at the time as insufficiently “robust,” but his main point was to redefine the idea of American strength and leadership—to note that not every global problem has a military solution and that some of America’s costliest mistakes have stemmed from rushing to arms “without thinking through the consequences, without building international support and legitimacy for our action, without leveling with the American people about the sacrifice required.”

He drew a distinction in the speech that seems obvious until you realize how few American politicians observe it. There are “core interests”—direct threats to America and its allies, which we would certainly defend with military force, “unilaterally if necessary.” And there are crises that may “stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction” but don’t threaten our core interests. In these latter cases, “the threshold for military action must be higher,” and if force is used, “we should not go it alone,” for the pragmatic reason that “collective action in these circumstances is more likely to succeed, more likely to be sustained, and less likely to lead to costly mistakes.”

Critics often deride Obama for taking too long to make decisions about the use of force. But much of this time is spent discussing and debating these questions: Do we have “core interests” in this fight? Will dropping bombs or sending troops lead to success? Will restraint from using force lead to failure? And what do “success” and “failure” mean, anyway? How would either result affect our interests?

American drones and aircraft are now flying surveillance missions over Syria, but, especially given Obama’s inclinations, this should not be seen as the first step of “mission-creep.” As my Slate colleague Joshua Keating recently noted, the main purpose of these flights was to find out what’s going on inside Syria: what ISIS, the Syrian army, and other rebel groups are doing, and the likely effects of assistance, of one sort or another. (That was also the purpose of the 300 “advisers” sent to Iraq, along with similar surveillance flights, earlier this summer.)

After the surveillance and the intelligence assessments, Obama may launch airstrikes against ISIS convoys mounting on the Syrian-Iraqi border. But what would be the consequence of bashing ISIS well inside Syria? What would be our interests in doing so? Who would go in with us? Who would carry the burden of the fight and, even more, the cleanup afterward?  (Not us, not likely!)

Obama is reportedly mobilizing a broad alliance against ISIS, but for all the above reasons, it will probably focus on Iraq, not Syria—mainly because it will have a higher chance of success in Iraq, not so much in Syria.

Then again, things are changing very rapidly in the Middle East, mainly in terrible ways but not entirely. Saudi Arabia and Iran, once intractable foes, are talking about their shared interests in loathing ISIS. The Saudis are also discussing ISIS with Israel, which has sat back and watched some of its fiercest enemies fighting each other—until Wednesday, when another al-Qaida offshoot occupied a checkpoint in the Golan Heights, along the Israeli-Syrian border. Now Israel has a stake in this fight, too.

It’s a phenomenal thing: Everybody hates ISIS—the United States, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Israel. Nearly all Middle Eastern countries and their big-power backers (including Russia and probably China too) would like to see it crushed. And ISIS itself has no nation-state allies; it thrives on looting, ransom, and the sectarian or ideological divides that block its vast array of enemies from uniting. To the extent ISIS “wins,” if it really does turn a country or swath of territory into an Islamist state, its victory will stem not from its military strength or popular appeal, but from the political dysfunction and misguided moral purity of its foes.