America Can't End Syria's Civil War

President Obama should emphasize that there is no military option that will end the turmoil associated with the civil war within Islam.

“The time has come to join Syria in a joint effort to destroy the Islamic State.” What previously was deemed unthinkable is now being widely discussed by members of the American foreign-policy community. The reason for this dramatic reversal has its roots in a number of factors: concern that IS is enjoying military success in Iraq and Syria; remorse in Washington that our enormously expensive effort to create a viable Iraqi military force has failed; the prospect that IS look-alikes are gaining traction in Libya; and anguish and anger over the beheading of American photojournalist James Foley by IS fanatics.

Much the same thinking has surfaced across the Atlantic. The UK’s former Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, has said: “We should not be squeamish about how we [destroy IS].” They are fanatical killers that not only control much of Iraq and Syria and imperil the Caliphate’s neighbors, they have promised to strike Europe and the United States using citizens from both countries to do so. The British Army’s former head Richard Dannatt noted military advantages tethered to this “unthinkable” relationship; aircraft traversing Syria’s airspace would no longer need worry about Assad’s air-defense assets.

Meanwhile, Walid Muallem, Syria’s foreign minister, has warned the United States against penetrating his country’s airspace to attack IS targets, but he has offered to cooperate with Washington in the “war against terrorism.” President Obama and his advisers deem collaboration with a dictator responsible for 200,000 deaths among his own people loathsome. Benjamin Rhodes, the president’s deputy national security adviser has said: “It is not the case that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” He added, “Joining forces with Assad would essentially permanently alienate the Sunni population in both Syria and Iraq, who are necessary to dislodging [IS].”

But to place collaboration with Syria in perspective, recall that last week, President Obama, his secretaries of state and defense—John Kerry and Chuck Hagel—and General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, intimated that they were pondering air attacks against IS bases in Syria. The strikes would degrade major IS formations and command posts and enhance Iraq’s security. Also, they would diminish the capacity of IS fighters to resist Iraqi and Kurdish peshmerga drives to regain territory previously lost to them. A matter of larger significance—that is, who would provide the ground forces to neutralize IS—was ignored.

Toward this end, consider the merits of the following three observations:

First, the United States must help the Iraqi army and the Kurds provide the “boots on the ground,” since a significant deployment of American combatants is out of the question. Of course, they will be supported by U.S. air cover while special-forces units will be deployed in limited cases—for example, to target IS leaders, to protect crucial allied bases and to prevent a humanitarian tragedy. But even then, the forces aligned to confront IS will be inadequate. Most Iraqi units have failed to demonstrate the will or capacity to fight, and it will take time to revitalize them, while even those who have displayed military competence are not likely to display much zeal for following IS into Syria. Likewise, there is reason to question the notion that the “Kurds are determined, battle-hardened fighters.” After all, they have not fought for some time, their ranks are divided, and like their Iraqi counterparts, their passion for confronting the enemy may diminish the farther away from their homeland they operate. By contrast, Assad’s soldiers have demonstrated considerable martial skills and unlike the Kurdish peshmerga, they have the weapons and integrated command structure essential for battlefield success. Were they to have outside help endorsed by—and including—the United States, their morale would surge.

Second, American air attacks must be significantly expanded in Iraq in coordinated efforts with allied ground forces to retake territory now under IS control. Simultaneously, U.S. drones, fighters, bombers and cruise missiles must strike IS targets in Syria in a comprehensive campaign to degrade the jihadist’s fighting capacity. With Syria’s compliance, American and allied aircraft no longer need fear Syrians air-defense systems bolstered by Russian ground-to-air missiles. Then too, there would be ample Syrian spotters on the ground to identify prime IS targets.

Third, Washington must enlist the support of regional stakeholders—including those who may not share common values and may even be at odds on certain matters, but who deem IS an existential threat to their security. Since the United States is the only country capable of stitching together an international response, this will be a daunting diplomatic challenge for President Obama. One of the most important and perhaps most difficult undertakings will be to convince Iran and Saudi Arabia to cooperate—but both have cause to do so. Until recently, the notion that these two bitter enemies would cooperate was simply absurd, but the rising tide of power displayed by jihadists that deem them as future targets may compel them to reassess their strategic agendas.