Saturday, 30 August 2014 | S Rajagopalan | in Oped
A year after shelving plan to airstrike Assad forces, the US faces a similar predicament in Syria after declaring to 'do what is necessary' against the Islamic State in the wake of the gruesome killing of James Foley
Exactly a year ago, President Barack Obama was bracing for a military strike against Syria as America's long-time bete noire Bashar al-Assad crossed the "red line" with his alleged use of chemical weapons. However, after all the sabre-rattling for nearly a fortnight, Mr Obama reversed course when confronted by unexpectedly massive domestic headwinds, both on Capitol Hill and elsewhere, with his camp-followers not relishing the sight of an "anti-war President" launching his own war. Much to his relief, Russia, using its clout with Assad, came up with a diplomatic proposal for international control of Syria's chemical weapons, and Mr Obama lost little time to hit the pause/eject button.
A year later, Mr Obama faces a similar predicament in Syria, the only difference being the target this time is not President Assad, who is still sitting pretty, but a ruthless outfit which has been battling for his ouster — the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). As a prelude to possibly taking the battle to ISIS' safe havens in Syria, Mr Obama ordered surveillance flights over Syria earlier this week to gather the requisite intelligence. That came on the heels of the ISIS' cold-blooded execution of American journalist James Foley and posting its savagery online. If the dispatch of spy planes and comments by some top aides triggered speculation of imminent military action, Mr Obama took everyone by surprise by hitting the brakes on Thursday, saying he has no strategy as yet.
For the time being anyway, Mr Obama appears to have beaten yet another hasty retreat on the Syrian front, just days after one of his top aides asserted that the United States would "do what is necessary" against the Islamic State militants in Syria in the wake of the gruesome killing of Foley. "If you come against Americans, we are going to come after you," Deputy National Security Adviser Benjamin Rhodes had declared, adding: "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."
In contrast to the strongly-worded statements by his aides earlier on, Mr Obama is now offering a more sober assessment. As he puts it, "Rooting out a cancer like ISIL (official acronym for the ISIS) will not be quick or easy, but I'm confident that we can and we will." Far from pushing ahead with a unilateral strike, he now speaks of the need for a long-term strategy to deal with the ISIS for which he would be sending his Secretary of State John Kerry to the region to build a coalition of "strong regional partners". For now, the US proposes to confine itself to continuing with the airstrikes against the ISIS within Iraq.
Mr Obama's pause on the Syrian front, pending finalisation of a regional strategy and putting together a coalition of willing, came about just as clutches of lawmakers, both Democratic and Republican, began to demand that the President seek Congressional authorisation before expanding the military offensive against the ISIS from Iraq to Syria. It also came on a day when The New York Times cautioned editorially: "There are too many unanswered questions to make that decision now and there has been far too little public discussion for Mr Obama to expect Americans to rally behind what could be another costly military commitment."
There has also been a steady commentary in the American media that the one man who would benefit the utmost from a US crackdown on the ISIS in Syria would be none else than Mr Assad. "It is not the case that the enemy of my enemy is my friend," commented Mr Rhodes. And when the question was put to Mr Obama himself at the White House presser, he said dismissively: "I don't think this is a situation where we have to choose between Assad or the kinds of people who carry on the incredible violence that we've been seeing there. We will continue to support a moderate opposition inside of Syria in part because we have to give people inside of Syria a choice other than ISIL or Assad."
In its anxiety to distance itself from the narrative of unwittingly helping Mr Assad, the Obama administration has, in recent days, dismissed the Syrian warning that the United States cannot act unilaterally, but only with its approval and cooperation. "Any breach of Syrian sovereignty by any side constitutes an act of aggression," asserted the country's Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem, only to be countered by the State Department, with spokesperson Jen Psaki retorting: "We're not going to ask for permission from the Syrian regime."
If some lawmakers are relieved that President Obama is not plunging the military into Syria, there are others, predominantly on the Republican side, who are inclined to support an offensive against the ISIS. That includes Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who wants the president to work with America's allies and develop a strategy. Reacting to the Obama announcement, he commented: "Don't forget, the threat from ISIL is real and it's growing — and it is time for President Obama to exercise some leadership in launching a response."
The broad view among experts and military advisers is that the Islamic State militancy cannot be defeated without going after the group inside Syria. US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey believes the Islamic State, right now a region threat, would soon be posing a threat to both America and Europe. He believes that the ISIS must be pressured both in Iraq and in Syria.
Ryan Crocker, a former US Ambassador to Syria and Iraq, is a strong proponent of expanding the offensive to Syria. "The rise of the ISIS presents the gravest threat to United States national security since 9/11," he wrote in the NYT, warning Americans: "This Al Qaeda mutant is far better armed, equipped and financed than the original. Unlike any variant of Al Qaeda since 9/11, it controls significant territory where, secure from attack, it has the space and time to plan its next set of operations. Anyone who believes the US is not on that list is delusional."
(The writer is Washington correspondent, The Pioneer)