Do Syrian Airstrikes Mean War?

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Tuesday morning, President Barack Obama addressed the nation on the beginning of airstrikes in Syria, targeting the terrorist group that calls itself the Islamic State, or ISIL. It was a short statement, spanning only a few minutes. Information was sparse; the President kept his comments limited to thanking American military for its “extraordinary service,” explaining that the fact that more than 40 countries have offered to help train and arm Iraqi troops and Syrian rebels fighting ISIL “sends powerful message to the rest of the world,” and noting that even though the “overall effort will take time,” the United States will do “what’s necessary to take the fight to this terrorist group.”

The coordinated bombing strikes in Syria that began last night have made “clear to the world that this is not America’s fight alone,” at least to a certain extent. But with Israel shooting down a Syrian aircraft that entered its airspace Tuesday, Obama’s passing mention of a new terrorist threat, the Khorasan group, and the likelihood that this conflict will be much more complex than the President’s public comments suggest, much more needs to be discussed.

Obama spoke just hours after the Pentagon announced that the United States and several of its Arab allies began bombing ISIL targets inside Syria, an action that represents a major escalation of the war against the Islamic militant group that has taken control of large swaths of land in Iraq and Syria. Early in his statement, the president made sure to reinforce the idea that his strategy for defeating ISIL — outlined in a primetime address earlier this month — is progressing as intended. “I made clear that as part of this campaign, the United States would take action against targets in both Iraq and Syria so that these terrorists can’t find safe haven anywhere,” he told reporters at the White House. “I also made clear that America would act as part of a broad coalition. And that’s exactly what we’ve done.”

The complexities regarding the United States’ campaign against ISIL are numerous, but just because Obama has skimmed over the details in typical presidential fashion does not mean that a number of points do not need to be analyzed.

1. What are the airstrikes accomplishing?

Attacks on ISIL terrorists in Syria began overnight, according to a September 23 press release issued by the Pentagon. The United States — in conjunction with Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates — targeted “ISIL fighters, training compounds, headquarters and command and control facilities, storage facilities, a finance center, supply trucks, and armed vehicles” in northern and eastern portions of the country. Not only was the Islamic State’s headquarters of Raqqa hit, but, separately, the “United States also took action to disrupt the imminent attack plotting against the United States and Western interests conducted by a network of seasoned al-Qaida veterans known as the Khorasan Group.” Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s designated affiliate in Syria, was targeted as well.

Government sources told The New York Times that the vast majority of airstrikes have been conducted by American planes and ship-based Tomahawk cruise missiles.

2. Who are the other groups being targeted in Syria?

Khorasan Group: Scant information about the organization is known, including their exact numbers. But still, it has become a main concern of the United States intelligence officials. As U.S. Central Command explained in a recent press release, the al-Qaeda cell group has “established a safe haven in Syria to develop external attacks, construct and test improvised explosive devices, and recruit Westerners to conduct operations.” Meanwhile, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told The New York Times that the battle-hardened group — flush with recruits from a number of foreign countries and led by Muhsin al-Fadhli, the son-in-law of Osama bin Laden — “may pose as much of a danger” as ISIS. They also share the Islamic State’s radical interpretation of Sunni Islam.

Nusra Front: “Considered well-trained, professional, and relatively successful on the battlefield, they earned the respect and support of many rebel groups, including some in the secular Free Syrian Army,” according to Stanford University’s “Mapping Military Organizations” project. The Syrian Free Army is chief among the moderate Syrian rebels that the United States is depending on to serve as ground troops in the fight against ISIL.

Back in 2012, the U.S. government designated Nusra Front as a terrorist organization.

3. What about the ‘boots on the ground’ problem?

“A F-16 is not a strategy … air strikes alone will not accomplish what we’re trying to accomplish,” noted House Speaker John Boehner last week after Obama announced his Iraq strategy. But the President has made clear that he does not want U.S. troops on the ground, meaning the mission depends on the contribution of ground support from local troops, including the Syrian Opposition Coalition and the Free Syrian Army. No one — from the President to a selection of congressional lawmakers to political scientists — believes that a simple campaign of airstrikes over Iraq and Syria will stabilize that region of the Middle East.

Already, “[in] Iraq, Kurdish Peshmerga forces have proved to be the anvil to the hammer of U.S. airstrikes, denying ISIS strategic terrain and recapturing lost territory,” noted in Oubai Shahbandar, a former Pentagon analyst, and Michael Pregent, a former U.S. Army intelligence officer, in an opinion piece published by The Wall Street Journal. “In Syria, airstrikes should enable the FSA and allied tribes to retake the country’s eastern oil fields, which are vital to sustaining and funding ISIS. operations.”

It is important to remember that there is little public support for putting American boots on the ground, a euphemism that obscures the complexities of the issue. In the case of U.S. strategy in Iraq, the question of deploying or not deploying American troops is not black and white. For example, the bombers and the drones that are conducting airstrikes in Iraq and Syria do so with the aid of intelligence gathered by special operations forces. The territory occupied by ISIL is a tightly interwoven villages and cities, and specific data is needed to ensure strikes are successful. Now, special operations forces and CIA teams are training and arming local troops in Iraq. But the problem is that the difference between guiding those forces and planning and participating in an attack is understandably small.

4. What about a terrorist retaliation?

The Islamic State has openly threatened the United States. In an audio message distributed in January, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi warned Americans that “soon we will be in direct confrontation.” Last month, an Islamic State spokesperson vowed that “we will raise the flag of Allah in the White House.” That rhetoric is both chilling and bombastic at once, but ISIL has so far directed its efforts toward the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, with the goal of capturing territory and forming an Islamic caliphate. Yet U.S. counterterrorism officials believe the group may now make attacking Americans are greater priority.

Evidence validating that concern can be found on Twitter and in radical Islamic forums. Jihadi media group, Tarjumān al-Āsāwirtī, proposed target in oil interest in the Persian Gulf, according to the International Business Times. “The Arabian region will be ignited, the oil wells and supply lines to the West will be blown up. You have entered a battle with lions of a different type. To kill America lies in oil. It must be cut to end the life of America. Destroying the destructive American economy will bring America to its knees, and this is through the supply lines in the Gulf,” read a recent tweet.

Such threats are “one of the downsides of U.S. involvement” in Iraq, Michael Morell, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, told CBS News in June. “The more we visibly get involved in helping the [Iraqi] government fight these guys, the more we become a target.” Government officials would not comment to Time magazine whether the threat level has escalated since the bombings began. But, as Daniel Benjamin, a former top State Department counterterrorism official, told the publication, “U.S. strikes against ISIS may well raise that group’s interest in carrying out terrorist attacks against U.S. targets.” However, he acknowledged that the significance of that shouldn’t be overstated. Experts agree that the threat is hard to calculate. Aaron Zelin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told Time that the Islamic State is “likely planning attacks whether the U.S. conducts targeted air strikes or not.”

Federal authorities expressed concern Tuesday that U.S. airstrikes could potentially push ISIL sympathizers to launch their own attacks. While “single events generally do not provoke an immediate response” from homegrown extremists, “[w]e believe these strikes will contribute to homegrown violent extremists’ … broader grievances about U.S. military intervention in predominantly Muslim lands, possibly motivating Homeland attacks,” read the bulletin sent to local, state, and federal law enforcement by the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI.

5. Where does the public stand?

According to recent Gallup polling, 60 percent of Americans approve of U.S. military action against Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria — a share slightly below the 68 percent average recorded for all United States engagements dating back to Grenada. More specifically, 64 percent of Democrats, 65 percent of Republicans, and 55 percent of Independents support the President’s decision to bomb the Islamic militants. Since June, approval has grown. At that time, after ISIL took control of parts of Iraq, 39 percent of Americans were in favor of direct U.S. military action in Iraq while 54 percent opposed.

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Source: Gallup

6. Is this a war?

“You are seeing the beginning of a sustained campaign, and strikes like this can be expected in the future,” said Lieutenant General William Mayville of the bombing, indicating that U.S. involvement in the Middle East will not be short. As bombings escalate, the complexities of defeating ISIL become more clear.

The clearer those complexities become, however, the more U.S. involvement looks like a war. In fact, reporters asked White House spokesperson Josh Earnest to address that issue. One reporter asked him about the cost of the “war,” and Earnest did not dispute the term. “I haven’t heard you use the word ‘war,’” the reporter said. “Yeah, I have — a couple of times,” Earnest replied. “But you’re raising an important issue.” Obama believes that, “ISIL has declared war on the broader international community,” he said. “And that means that the international community is at war with ISIL and the United States is at war with ISIL in the same way that we’re at war with al-Qaeda and its affiliates around the globe.”

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