With American airstrikes slowing the march of extremists in Iraq, President Obama is thinking of expanding that action into Syria, where fighters for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria move unimpeded.
But there are too many unanswered questions to make that decision now, and there has been far too little public discussion for Mr. Obama to expect Americans to rally behind what could be another costly military commitment.
Last weekend, President Obama authorized the Pentagon to send surveillance planes over Syria to gather intelligence on ISIS. This week, news reports have suggested the process is moving so quickly that Mr. Obama could soon authorize airstrikes. Officials said that such a decision is not expected until later in September, after next week’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit and other consultations.
If Mr. Obama seeks military escalation, he must explain how airstrikes against ISIS in Syria fit into a broader strategy, how they could be successful, what success means, and how they might be done without benefiting Syria’s dictator, Bashar Assad, who is under attack by ISIS and other Sunni opposition forces.
One problem is the administration’s incomplete knowledge about ISIS, its numbers, and its organization. This is alarming, given the billions of dollars spent since Sept. 11, 2001, in developing technologies and strategies for detecting and assessing terrorist threats.
ISIS began as an al-Qaeda-affiliated group fighting Americans in Iraq in the mid-2000s. American and Iraqi officials were stunned when it shifted this year from trying to topple Assad and began seizing territory in northern Iraq.
The group poses a danger to Kurdistan, the semiautonomous region in northern Iraq; to Yazidis and other minorities who have been persecuted, and potentially to the Iraqi government. ISIS proved its savagery this month in beheading American journalist James Foley.
Beyond that, experts are divided on the threat ISIS poses to the United States. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last week described ISIS as an “imminent threat to every interest we have” and “beyond anything that we’ve seen.”
But the Pentagon press secretary said the Defense Department does not believe ISIS has “the capability right now to conduct a major attack on the U.S. homeland.” Other senior officials and experts are not convinced that ISIS, for now, extends beyond a regional problem, albeit a serious one.
The Obama Administration has been careful about its campaign in Iraq, which Baghdad requested. It is striking ISIS targets while Iraqi security forces and Kurdistan’s peshmerga militia carry out ground operations. American advisers are in the country to help identify targets and advise Iraqi commanders.
The United States, however, has not been invited into Syria, and the Obama Administration has not articulated a legal justification for crossing the border.
Military action alone is not enough to defeat the extremists who gain followers by exploiting repression against the Sunnis. American officials are organizing a coalition of allies to take on ISIS. Turkey and some Persian Gulf states are permitting the use of their military bases for airstrikes, and European countries are arming the Kurds.
But no comprehensive strategy has been worked out. And without that, it would be unwise to expand a mission that Mr. Obama has acknowledged “won’t be easy, and it won’t be quick.”
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