In my heart, I’d love to see the Obama administration pursue ISIS into Syria. First, because stopping genocide is a good justification for war. And when it comes to non-Sunni Muslims, ISIS’s intentions are baldly genocidal. Second, because in a post-9/11 world, there’s still something terrifying about allowing a violent jihadist organization to establish a de-facto country, in which it amasses wealth and operates freely, especially when some of its devotees hold Western passports. Third, because for all of America’s terrible mistakes and misdeeds in the Middle East, if the U.S. doesn’t act against ISIS, no one else will.
But while my heart is willing, one question keeps stymieing my brain. If we fight against ISIS in Syria, who will we be fighting for?
Bombing can pulverize an enemy, but only allies on the ground can seize its territory. In Iraq, it’s easier to grasp who those allies are: the Kurdish Peshmerga and perhaps the Iraqi Army.
Even in Iraq, these ground allies pose problems. The Peshmerga are a disciplined fighting force with a political agenda that is more pro-American and more liberal than anyone else’s in the neighborhood. But by supporting them, the U.S. may hasten Kurdish independence and the dissolution of Iraq. As for the Iraqi Army, its political overlords have in recent years proved so anti-Sunni that supporting the regime in Baghdad risks taking sides in a sectarian civil war.
Still, for all the problems with intervening militarily in Iraq, they pale next to the problems of doing so in Syria. In Syria, the United States has two potential ground allies. The first is the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the moderate Syrian opposition battling both ISIS and Bashar al-Assad’s brutal Alawite regime. The problem is that the Free Syrian Army isn’t much of an army and may not be all that moderate. “The FSA was always more fiction than reality,” wrote George Washington University’s Marc Lynch recently, “with a structure on paper masking the reality of highly localized and fragmented fighting groups on the ground.” Last year, Syria expert Aron Lund listed nine different rebel groups that the media sometimes identifies with the Free Syrian Army. “What do all of these groups have in common?” he asks. “None of them have any boots on the ground.”
The theory behind supporting Syria’s non-jihadist rebels has long been that an infusion of U.S. aid could strengthen and unify them. But it’s not even clear that the rebels the U.S. would empower are actually non-jihadist. Citing research by the University of Virginia’s Jonah Schulhofer-Wohl, Lynch argues that the moderate/jihadist dichotomy that governs much of the American discourse about opposition fighters in Syria doesn’t hold on the ground, where various armed groups have engaged in “rapidly shifting alliances.” As Abu Yusaf, an ISIS commander, recently told journalists with The Washington Post, “Many of the FSA people who the West has trained are actually joining us.”
Bombing ISIS fighters from the air and arming moderate rebels to attack them from the ground may sound attractive. But not if we can’t really tell them apart.
Then there’s America’s second potential ground ally in Syria: Bashar al-Assad. He commands a far more unified and effective fighting force than do the “moderate” Syrian rebels. He’s less of a threat to the United States than is ISIS. And he’s even preferable morally—in a Stalin versus Hitler kind of way. Some current and former British politicians now propose allying with the Syrian regime, at least in order to ensure that if American and British warplanes enter Syria to bomb ISIS, Assad’s anti-missile systems won’t shoot them down.
But given that President Obama called on Assad to leave power three years ago and last year almost bombed him for using chemical weapons, even a tacit alliance with the Syrian dictator would make Obama’s past flip-flops look trivial. In Washington, the outcry would be massive, especially because of Syria’s close ties to Iran. Regionally, it might be worse. If relations between Washington and long-standing Sunni allies like Saudi Arabia are frayed now—in part because the U.S. hasn’t intervened against Assad strongly enough—it’s hard to imagine the impact on those relationships were the U.S. and Assad to actually join forces.
From Somalia to Kosovo to Libya, the problem with America’s humanitarian interventions has never been ascertaining the nastiness of the people we’re fighting against. It’s been ascertaining the efficacy and decency of the people we’re fighting for. That’s a particular challenge in the case of ISIS in Syria.
I’d love to believe our government is wise enough to surmount that challenge. I’d love to, but I don’t.