When the United States began bombing Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra positions in Syria last month, it entered into a conflict that has been grinding on for more than three years. Here are five major questions America needs to answer as the fighting unfolds in the weeks ahead:
1. What happens when the United States runs out of targets to strike? America will soon discover that there are only so many checkpoints, buildings, convoys and command-and-control structures to hit. The Islamic State is a terrorist insurgency, not a national army, so U.S. military planners are going to run out of points on a map to strike. While the group certainly does seize, hold, and administer territory, it doesn’t tend to mass troops or maintain significant administrative infrastructure yet that can be targeted from the skies.
The U.S. Air Force is excellent at striking fixed positions, but what will it do when Islamic State fighters blend seamlessly into the civilian population, like any good insurgency does when confronted by an air campaign carried out by a superior foe? Perhaps the group will take a play from Hamas’ playbook and use hospitals, mosques and schools to continue the fight — practically daring the United States to hit them and cause civilian casualties. Its fighters are reportedly already using civilians as human shields. And despite allied efforts, the Islamic State will continue to rule its populace with brutality and coercion.
2. Who will eventually occupy the ground? President Barack Obama has committed to a “no boots on the ground” policy for this campaign — except, of course, for the 1,600 “advisers” in neighboring Iraq. While this is politically palatable to Americans, some ground forces must wrest control of the land from Islamic State. You can’t run a counterinsurgency exclusively from the air.
In theory, Iraq should control the areas now under Islamic State control — and perhaps Sunni tribes could provide the ground forces if there is rapprochement between the government and the tribal sheiks. But what political actor would play this role in Syria? The “moderate” rebels? President Bashar al-Assad? The Kurds? As any wannabe political scientist would say, “power abhors a vacuum.” Yet that’s what the United States may be creating in Syria. After all, the Free Syrian Army claims that Washington does not coordinate its airstrikes with it — making it difficult for its fighters to capitalize on successes on the ground.
3. What exactly are America’s allies doing? The White House and top U.S. policymakers have made a big to-do about America’s allies in the fight against Islamic State — more than 40 nations, with five Arab states having assisted in the initial strikes in Syria. But let’s be honest: The United States is leading the battle right now. (Of course, Kurds are also fighting hard and dying to defend their lands.)
But of this vaunted alliance, what are the specifics of the burden-sharing agreement? There seems to be a lot of talk but not the level of commitment required to win a protracted war against a determined adversary. For example, Saudi Arabia would probably love to fight Islamic State to the last American, but because so many Saudi nationals are fighting the West, the House of Saud needs to put a little more skin in the game besides launching a few aerial sorties and hosting training facilities.
4. What should Washington do if/when the terrorists strike back? What if something terrible happens outside Syria/Iraq, and it has the Islamic State’s or Jabhat al-Nusra’s fingerprints on it? Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s master bomb maker, Ibrahim al-Asiri, is reportedly assisting Syrian extremists in building sophisticated bombs for smuggling onto airplanes.
What should the West’s reaction be if an embassy goes up in flames or a U.S. passenger plane explodes in midair? What if a less spectacular but still gruesome attack occurs, such as the thwarted plot in Australia to abduct and behead a random person on the streets of Sydney? Will America deepen its resolve even further? Will the United States put elite troops on the ground in Syria … again? And will the American people support it?
5. What is the realistic endgame in Syria and Iraq? The American public hates conflicts that have no well-defined goal or end in sight — and will punish leaders and political parties at the ballot box if they feel that they’ve been led astray. To “degrade” and “eventually destroy” Islamic State is a fine enough goal, but assuming the United States achieves it, then what?
That possibility leads to many larger and thornier questions: Will the conflict in Syria grind on, even without Islamic State playing a decisive role? Will Iraq remain at the mercy of Shi’ite militias and political dysfunction? Will Iraqi security forces remain a wreck? Will the Sunnis continue to be disenfranchised by Baghdad?
The answer to all these questions is “yes, probably” because all the political drivers that produced the current difficulties will remain more in place. This cannot be an acceptable political solution for Washington, or the problems of today will continue to be the problems of the next decade or more.
The shock-and-awe of the U.S. bombing campaign in Syria is a good first step to dismantle the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra. But unless the White House can answer these tough questions with real answers, the efforts might be for naught — and America will be back to square one in the years ahead.
PHOTO (TOP): A pair of U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles fly over northern Iraq after conducting airstrikes in Syria, September 23, 2014. REUTERS/U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Matthew Bruch/Handout
PHOTO (INSERT 1): The guided-missile cruiser USS Philippine Sea (CG 58) launches a Tomahawk cruise missile, as seen from the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77), in the Gulf, September 23, 2014. REUTERS/Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Eric Garst/U.S. Navy/Handout
PHOTO (INSERT 2): A U.S Air Force KC-10 Extender refuels an F-22 Raptor fighter aircraft prior to strike operations in Syria, September 26, 2014 REUTERS/Russ Scalf/U.S. Air Force photo/Handout