Will the U.S. launch airstrikes in Syria?

The New York Times reports: The prospect of the first American attacks on Syrian soil during three years of brutal civil war electrified Syrians on Thursday, prompting intense debate over whether airstrikes on the extremist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria would help or harm President Bashar al-Assad, his armed Syrian opponents and war-weary civilians.

Raqqa, the northeastern city that ISIS has ruled for more than a year, was abuzz with the news. Civilians fled areas near ISIS headquarters. Anti-ISIS insurgents pronounced themselves energized by the prospect of new American aid and said Turkish officials had recently contacted them, promising new arms to fight the foreign-led Sunni group.

But even among fervent opponents of ISIS — including Syrian insurgents, some of whom stand to gain aid to battle the group — there was ambivalence over President Obama’s declaration that he would “not hesitate” to strike ISIS in Syria.

Many warned that if weakening ISIS strengthened Mr. Assad, allowing him to continue attacking opposition-held civilian areas with impunity, and was not accompanied by political enfranchisement of the Sunni majority in Syria, the strikes could backfire, driving more Sunnis to support or tolerate ISIS. Others worried that Syrian civilians could be killed in the attacks. [Continue reading…]

In his national address last night, President Obama said:

I have made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are. That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria as well as Iraq. This is a core principle of my presidency: If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.

In terms of military strategy, it’s well understood that ISIS will not be weakened, let alone destroyed, if it is pushed back in Iraq while consolidating its strength in Syria. But when Obama says he will not hesitate to strike ISIS in Syria, he is not tying that choice to the campaign in Iraq. Instead, he appears to be making it conditional on his assessment of the threat that ISIS poses to the United States.

He also said, “we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland,” and warned that ISIS fighters “could try to return to their home countries and carry out deadly attacks.”

So, Obama appears not to see ISIS as posing an imminent threat to the U.S. and for as long as that remains the case, I’m doubtful that he will order airstrikes in Syria.

If the White House lawyers insist that an imminent threat is the required trigger, then identifying an imminent threat could simply be a matter of political convenience. But I really doubt that Obama is itching to launch such an attack, so I don’t think he’s actively looking for a pretext.

At the same time, if as many have argued, ISIS is trying to bait the U.S., then an adequate bait would involve nothing more than making a few phone calls (which can predictably be intercepted by the NSA) in which plotters discuss plans for attacking America.

As things stand right now, I believe that neither ISIS nor Obama are ready to see U.S. airstrikes on Raqqa.

Foreign Policy notes:

[T]here are good reasons American policymakers haven’t yet rushed to bomb Syria. “There’s a good risk of losses to the U.S. Air Force if we go into Syria without consent,” says Poss. “Syrian air defenses are among the best in the world because they have to go up against one of the best air forces in the world, the Israelis, almost daily.” Israel has managed to outwit its neighbor’s ground-to-air missile defenses a few times thanks to tactical surprise. But a concerted U.S. air campaign against IS in Syria would require multiple sorties every day. Syria’s foreign minister has already warned that the United States will need President Bashar al-Assad’s permission to carry out operations against the terrorist group — something few in Washington have the appetite for requesting. Even so, there’s a risk that bombing in Syria could open an unwanted front in the war.

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