AUG. 22, 2014
U.S. Weighs Direct Military Action Against ISIS in Syria
By PETER BAKER and MICHAEL D. SHEAR
WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is debating a more robust intervention in Syria, including possible American airstrikes, in a significant escalation of its weeks-long military assault on the Islamic extremist group that has destabilized neighboring Iraq and killed an American journalist, officials said Friday.
While President Obama has long resisted being drawn into Syria's bloody civil war, officials said recent advances by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria had made clear that it represents a threat to the interests of the United States and its allies. The beheading of James Foley, the American journalist, has contributed to what officials called a "new context" for a challenge that has long divided the president's team.
Officials said the options include speeding up and intensifying limited American efforts to train and arm moderate Syrian rebel forces that have been fighting both ISIS as well as the government of President Bashar al-Assad. Another option would be to bolster other partners on the ground to take on ISIS, including the Syrian Kurds.
But American officials said they would also take a look at airstrikes by fighter jets and bombers as well as potentially sending Special Operations forces into Syria, like those who tried to rescue Mr. Foley and other hostages on a mission in July. One possibility officials have discussed for Iraq that could be translated to Syria would be a series of unmanned drone strikes targeting ISIS leaders, much like those conducted in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan.
Whether Mr. Obama would actually authorize a new strategy remained unclear and aides said he has not yet been presented with recommendations. The president has long expressed skepticism that more assertive action by the United States, including arming Syrian rebels as urged in 2011 by Hillary Rodham Clinton, then the secretary of state, would change the course of the civil war there. But he sent out a top adviser on Friday to publicly hint at the possibility a day after the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said ISIS could not be defeated without going after it in Syria.
"If you come after Americans, we're going to come after you, wherever you are," Benjamin J. Rhodes, the president's deputy national security adviser, told reporters in Martha's Vineyard, where Mr. Obama is on a much-interrupted vacation. "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."
American operations against ISIS in Syria would expand the scope and goals of the military intervention Mr. Obama ordered in Iraq two weeks ago. At the time, the president said he authorized airstrikes to defend American personnel and prevent the genocide of religious minorities threatened by ISIS.
But he has also ordered strikes to help Iraq's government reclaim control of the vital Mosul Dam from ISIS. Sending American warplanes or drones to cross the border into Syria would mean that he was now taking on the mission of degrading or even crippling ISIS, which has established what it calls an Islamic caliphate on a wide band of territory across the two countries.
"Common sense suggests you need to hit them in Syria," said Steven Simon, a former White House adviser to Mr. Obama on the Middle East. "Everyone understands well enough that you can't defeat an insurgency that has a cross-border safe haven, so you have to do something."
Critics of the original Iraq intervention said escalating into Syria would represent exactly the kind of mission creep they warned against.
"We've seen this movie before and we know how it ends," said Stephen Miles, advocacy director of Win Without War, a national coalition formed to oppose the 2003 invasion of Iraq ordered by President George W. Bush. "Unfortunately, we see at the end of the day it's almost always the case that the extremists are emboldened. We play into their hands by giving them what they want, which is a battle with the West."
An expanded intervention into Syria would represent a striking turnaround for a president who has opposed such a move before, and some administration officials therefore doubt that he will agree. From the start of the Syrian civil war, Mr. Obama's response has been marked by a pattern of heightened public statements and indications of stepped-up involvement, followed by far less action than suggested.
At one point, Mr. Obama declared Mr. Assad had to "step aside" and at another he laid down a "red line" against any use of chemical weapons. But the president rejected the 2011 proposal backed by Mrs. Clinton to arm and train small groups of vetted rebels, fearful that the weapons could fall into the wrong hands.
Just a year ago, he vowed to retaliate against Syria for using chemical weapons on civilians, only to abruptly reverse himself and ask Congress to decide whether to go forward. He then pivoted again to embrace a Russian plan to remove Syria's chemical weapons without taking military action. The episode was widely seen as damaging Mr. Obama's credibility, but the joint Russian-American initiative recently finished destroying all of Syria's chemicals, achieving the goal the president set.
Mr. Obama eventually approved a limited effort to arm and train vetted rebels and this summer asked Congress for another $500 million to help, but lawmakers are unlikely to act until next year and the flow of current aid has been so tightly controlled that some rebel leaders have said it seemed designed less to turn the tide of war than to keep them alive -- while creating an impression that the United States is helping.
As recently as two weeks ago, Mr. Obama rejected the notion that arming the rebels earlier would have made a difference, saying that has "always been a fantasy." He said the administration had difficulty finding, training and arming a sufficient cadre of secular Syrians. "There's not as much capacity as you would hope," he said.
What is now under consideration would be a different goal: not to punish Mr. Assad's government or to further his ouster but to cripple ISIS. As it happens, that would actually work in Mr. Assad's favor, since ISIS has been one of the most effective of the various factions fighting Syrian government forces. But it might be more directly in the interest of the United States, given the threat posed by an ISIS caliphate whose brutality was captured in the video image of a masked man beheading Mr. Foley.
"Given what's happened to Jim Foley, given the public profile that this ISIS bunch has taken, I think it's easier for the president, and for that matter for members of Congress, to make the case to the public that the United States really ought to be operating in the skies over Syria against this particular group," said Frederic Hof, a former Syria adviser in Mr. Obama's State Department.
American officials had long worried about the dangers from Westerners fighting in Syria, including about 100 Americans, returning home to carry out attacks here. As of this spring, ISIS was viewed as an immediate threat to the region and a potential threat to the continental United States. But the intelligence community concluded that ISIS did not yet have the capability to strike here.
In recent months, however, concerns over ISIS's capability to attack American personnel and interests in the region have increased as the group swept into northern Iraq. Fears of threats to the United States itself have also increased, mainly because of reports of growing collaboration between ISIS and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has the most sophisticated bombmaker in the militant world and a demonstrated willingness to attack the United States.
Peter Baker reported from Washington and Michael D. Shear from Edgartown, Mass. Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Williamsburg, Va., and Mark Landler from Washington.