President Obama is set to discuss his plan for confronting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in a primetime speech this evening. According to press reports, the president is ready to authorize the use of military strikes against the group in Syria. Thus far, American military action has been limited to neighboring Iraq. This is a step in the right direction by Obama. As the administration recognizes, the U.S. and its allies cannot take the fight to ISIL without targeting its substantive strongholds in Syria.
Airstrikes are not enough, however, to dislodge ISIL from its safe havens in Iraq or Syria. In Iraq, the president is trying to work with Iraqi forces, which are both weak and overly dependent on Iran. Iranian-backed forces are not going to clear and hold the Sunni lands north of Baghdad currently under ISIL’s control. In fact, Iranian-supported Shiite extremists only serve to further exacerbate the situation as they lash out at Sunnis, turning some would-be partners into ISIL’s allies or even a new generation of radicals.
There is a further complication in Syria — al Qaeda its allies control a sizable force. While everyone’s eyes are fixed on ISIL, other anti-American jihadists are still very much a part of the fight.
And the president needs to outline a strategy not only for fighting ISIL, but one that also addresses the other anti-ISIL jihadists in Syria. It is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, for Obama to do so without using American military force in a more robust way.
During his appearance on NBC’s Meet The Press with Chuck Todd this past weekend, Obama insisted that the U.S. will not put boots on the ground to lead the fight. The president said America needs “to have a more sustainable strategy, which means the boots on the ground have to be Iraqi. And in Syria, the boots on the ground have to be Syrian.”
Todd pressed Obama on Syria, asking whose boots we can rely on. “Well, we have a Free Syrian Army and moderate opposition that we have steadily been working with, that we have vetted,” Obama replied. “They have been on the defensive, not just from ISIL, but also from the Assad regime.”
The president’s explanation raises a number of problems. The U.S. has not been “steadily…working with” a moderate opposition in Syria. America’s efforts were at first nonexistent, then minimal and uneven. Because the West did not forcefully back the first rebels opposed to Assad in 2011, there is no “moderate opposition” in Syria today capable of ejecting ISIL from its substantial territorial holdings.
In between ISIL and Assad sits al Qaeda’s official branch, Jabhat al Nusrah (JN), and allied groups. Not all of the non-ISIL rebels are jihadists, but even those rebels who have been “vetted” by the U.S. cannot resist working with JN because it is still one of the most effective fighting forces on the ground.
JN and ISIL are bitter rivals. And, since earlier this year, ISIL has had the upper hand. But JN is not a viable partner in any way for the U.S. Its leaders are openly loyal to Ayman al Zawahiri. And al Qaeda has dispatched a number of seasoned jihadist veterans to Syria to buttress JN’s ranks.
One of those al Qaeda veterans is known as Sanafi al Nasr, who was designated a terrorist by the Treasury Department in August. Treasury noted at the time that al Nasr "has used social media posts to demonstrate his aspiration to target Americans and U.S. interests.” Indeed, al Nasr maintains a prolific Twitter feed and has openly pined for attacks on the U.S. in his tweets.
Obama believes that there is a “core” of al Qaeda that is confined to South Asia, and that it is this “core” that poses the most serious threat to the U.S. But Obama’s paradigm for understanding al Qaeda has never been based on the evidence. Sanafi al Nasr is a “core” al Qaeda member and he openly threatens the U.S. from Syrian soil.
Obama administration officials have recognized the threat posed by al Qaeda’s leaders in Syria. “In Syria, veteran al Qaeda fighters have traveled from Pakistan to take advantage of the permissive operating environment and access to foreign fighters,” the director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), Matthew Olsen, said during a speech earlier this month. “They are focused on plotting against the West,” Olsen added.