Experts say U.S. military is frustrated at being asked to defeat ISIL using limited scope and power.
There appears to be growing tensions within the Obama administration regarding its strategy in Syria as the White House seems reluctant to make a shift in policy, experts say.
When President Barack Obama laid out his strategy in September for combatting ISIL, he said the U.S. would target the terror group with airstrikes, accompanied with ground troops from the local forces, cut ISIL’s financial sources, stop the flow of foreign fighters and fight ISIL’s anti-Islam message.
In addition, the president decided to train and equip moderate Syrian opposition forces to fight ISIL and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but Obama didn’t include Assad’s removal as a priority in the operations.
This policy for fighting the militants, however, is constrained and faces criticism at home and abroad as it approaches the crisis in Syria almost exclusively through the threat of ISIL, while failing to address attacks by Assad.
Washington’s reluctance to move directly against the Assad regime has complicated relations with members of the U.S. coalition, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Although contributing to the coalition, Turkey has pushed the U.S. to target Assad, who it considers to be the number one cause of the chaos in the country and destabilization in the region. Turkey has also pushed for a buffer zone to be established in northern Syria along its border, but the Obama administration has made it clear that the U.S. would not adopt the idea, and Turkey has so far declined to open its bases to coalition forces and to take offensive military action within the coalition.
Senior Obama administration officials have suggested that the U.S. policy in Syria may need to be tweaked as Assad’s regime has become a catalyst in the rise of terror groups. Officials have also repeatedly said that U.S. boots on ground has been ruled out as an option in Syria.
U.S. military leadership, however, seem to differ from the political wing of the administration and would like to have a ground forces option within the context of U.S. strategy in the Middle East. During a congressional hearing in September, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said that the military should keep on the table the option to deploy special forces in Syria and Iraq against ISIL.
The idea that airstrikes would have limited impact has been repeated by military brass on different platforms and the army wants the White House to define a strategy that would clarify how the U.S. will deal with Assad.
The New York Times reported last week that in a leaked memo earlier this month, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel warned the White House that “the administration’s Syria policy was in danger of unraveling” as it failed to clarify its intentions for the Assad regime.
Hagel, who did not confirm the memo, said that he owed Obama and his top advisers his “best thinking” on the issue which has to be “honest” and “direct.” Greg Myre, a Middle East expert from the Washington-based Middle East Institute agrees with Hagel and said the U.S. position concerning Assad is not really clear. “What Hagel has been asking for is something that a lot of people has in fact been asking for.”
Obama is trying to measure politically and define his policy in a way that is acceptable to the American population, who don’t want to see another big war in the Middle East, according to Myre. “When it comes to the military, I think there is a lot of frustration in the military,” he said. “Because they are being told to fight but to do it in a very limited way.”
The U.S. didn’t have a good intelligence network in Syria and the one that it had in Iraq has been lost in recent years, he said.
“The army does not have troops on the ground, it is very difficult to gather intelligence, without forces on the ground.”
Thomas Donnelly, a fellow at Washington based American Enterprise Institute also agreed that the military leadership is frustrated for being limited to airstrikes in fighting ISIL.
“White House strategy is disturbing the people in the uniform as they don’t want to fight with their hands tied behind their backs. They know very well that the operations ongoing are very small but they are doing what they are told.”
But Donnelly cautioned that the Obama administration will not clarify its position toward Assad in order to save its nuclear deal with Iran.
U.S. military leadership is not happy with the move, he said, and is more comfortable interacting with traditional Sunni allies.
The administration’s inaction against Assad is linked to a small circle of officials around Obama, according to Amr Azzam, assistant professor at Shawnee State University in Ohio.
He said the influential group believes that the best thing to do is not to engage in any crisis in the region.
Turkey, a close U.S. ally and NATO member, has warned of rising sectarian tensions in the region, particularly in Iraq. However, the White House does not appear ready to adopt such a position unless and until there is a catastrophic event, which would make it inevitable, Azzam said.
“There is a constant stream of the criticism within the Obama team” he noted. “Hillary Clinton left as she was critical, ambassador (Robert) Ford, ambassador Fred Hof (advisor to special envoy George Mitchell on Arab-Israeli peace) left, now we see Chuck Hagel is critical.”
The number of people within the administration who are concerned about the lack of strategy as the crisis unfolds is increasing, he said.
But the Pentagon will not be able to force a change in strategy. “It will be more to do with what happens in the region itself,” he said. “The reason why the White House decided to conduct airstrikes was not because the Pentagon asked it to do. Rather it was related to what was going on in the region. ISIL forces were kilometers away from Erbil.”
But if Assad were removed, it would leave larger questions to be answered.
“Assuming that you degrade and destroy the ISIL, what would happen to the Assad regime,” said Greg Myre. “The Assad regime will become even stronger.”
The administration would like Assad out, but it is not clear who would replace him and that causes White House hesitation, including how to stabilize the country.
The U.S. acknowledges that there should be a transition of power that would include the departure of Assad but not through a military campaign, Azzam said.
“This is a paradox. On the one hand asking Assad to go, but on the other hand not being willing to take the steps that will make him go has been the biggest failure of this administration,” he said.
Dr. Azzam also said that without the removal of Assad it is impossible to clear Syria of extremist groups like ISIL. “Assad is part of the problem but not part of the solution,” he added.
ISIL is a manifestation of a deeper problem, he said and since Obama took office there has been a disengagement in the entire region.
“This has allowed a power vacuum to come about, it has allowed Iranian influence to increasingly spread in the region at the expense of the majority Sunni powers existing there,” he said.
Donnelly sided with Azzam and added that the administration prefers to separate the two issues – ISIL and Assad – a fundamental error.
“It is very difficult to separate the cause and effect from each other; in this case Assad is the cause and ISIL an outcome of it,” he said.