President Obama wants to decide by the end of the week whether or not his war in Iraq against the Islamic State will expand to the group’s haven in eastern Syria. But nearly everything about the potential military campaign is still in flux, administration officials tell The Daily Beast—from the goals of the effort to the intelligence needed to carry it out.
ISIS’s murder of American photojournalist James Foley and its continued military expansion have pushed the administration into an urgent drive to take action against the Islamic extremists in Syria. Despite the new urgency, the plans for such a strike are far from complete. In a series of high-level meetings Tuesday—including one gathering of the Principals’ Committee, the administration's top national security officials—White House staffers and cabinet secretaries alike struggled to come up with answers to basic questions about the potential strikes. Among the unresolved issues: whether the U.S. has reliable intelligence on ISIS targets in Syria; what the objectives and limits of the strikes would be; and how the administration would defend the action legally, diplomatically, and politically.
One huge unanswered question is whether the president will order the attacks, or whether he will ultimately balk, as he did this time last year after preparing for limited strikes against the Bashar al-Assad regime. One administration official working on Syria policy said the purpose of the meetings Tuesday was “to convince one man, Barack Obama,” to follow through on the rhetoric and widen the aims of the war to include destroying ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. While Obama and his top officials have said they will need to address the threat of ISIS on both sides of the Iraq/Syria border, Obama has not said specifically what that means.
Two administration officials tell The Daily Beast that the Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence community are developing options to widen the war to be considered by Obama’s war cabinet this week. On Monday evening, The Wall Street Journalfirst reported—and The Daily Beast has confirmed—that the U.S. has flown surveillance aircraft into Syrian territory, part of the administration’s rush to come up with intelligence that could be used in any strikes.
Unlike in Iraq—where U.S. airstrikes are closely coordinated with Iraqi and Kurdish forces on the ground—the Obama administration has not yet consulted with ISIS’s opponents in Syria about possible strikes.
“Nobody has talked to us about carrying out airstrikes [in Syria], up to this moment,” Hadi AlBahra, president of the Syrian National Coalition, told The Daily Beast in an interview Tuesday. “If I were in their place, I would talk to us, because we are on the ground and we are in a better position to tell them where the ISIS forces are.”
Absent direct guidance from the president, officials can’t even be sure what the objectives of airstrikes would be beyond retaliation against ISIS. Officials are also trying to game out how both ISIS and the Assad regime would react. The State Department on Tuesday denied reports it was considering coordinating on ISIS with the Assad regime.
“They should work and coordinate with the Free Syrian Army”—the moderate opponents to Assad—“to make sure there will be no collateral damage, to make sure they are targeting the right spots and the right forces. Coordinating operations with the FSA on the ground will also bring more success to the entire operation,” said AlBahra. “Right now, the Free Syrian Army are the only ones fighting ISIS inside Syria.”
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