Obama’s reluctance to strike ISIS inside Syria

The Daily Beast reports: 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.” [Continue reading…]

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2 thoughts on “Obama’s reluctance to strike ISIS inside Syria

  1. Syd

    It’s Mr Hamid who has the ideological foreign policy. Obama’s decision rests on a factual claim: there are few moderates in Syria we can work with. Our official intelligence assessment agrees with this. (“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 folks sitting around the table today do not think we can work with them.'”) Obviously there are intelligence officials who disagree with this, but it’s telling that even the critics think the moderate opposition is pretty small. (“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.'”)

    According to the article, the critics “strategy” seems to rely mostly upon bombing. (“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.”)

    Obviously this would strengthen Assad enormously, and ISIS ideologically. I don’t see how such an extensive bombing campaign is going to make the Sunnis more moderate, and winning the hearts and minds of this population has to be one of our primary goals in this war.

  2. hquain

    Obama is a political klutz with what looks like a boy-scout level of reflexive honesty. How he made it this far in politics remains a bit of a mystery, given his verbal instincts.

    But! He is doing absolutely the right thing — thinking carefully before acting. The idea that swashbuckling, blasting, and blowing-hard are the keys to dealing with an unbelievably complex situation, with consequences tangled among consequences, and with wily actors who obviously match great skills to unrestrained viciousness — this is just, let’s say it, stupid.

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