Can US defeat Islamic State without help from Assad?

Some security experts are cautioning the administration about its anti-Assad stance, even as the US begins surveillance flights over Syria in anticipation of possible expanded US action against the Islamic State.

Kurdish peshmerga troops deploy against Islamic State militants on the outskirts of Diyala, northeast of Baghdad, August 22.

After a flurry of speculation recently that President Obama might overcome his distaste for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to go after Islamic State militants in their base inside Syria, the White House is speaking out: There will be no cooperation with the Assad regime.

But even as the United States begins surveillance flights over Syria in anticipation of possible expanded US action against the Islamic State (IS), also known as ISIS, some security experts are cautioning the administration about its anti-Assad stance. While it will be possible for the US to degrade IS inside Syria without coordinating with Mr. Assad, they say, reaching more long-term objectives like defeating or even containing the group will probably mean giving up on the goal of seeing Assad step down from power.

“I don’t think it would be by any means difficult for us to carry out airstrikes [inside Syria] without a permissive environment” of cooperation from the Assad regime, says Michael Desch, an expert on international security and US defense policy at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

But if the US objective is to “see ISIS pretty well contained,” he adds, “the only way there is with a relatively strong central government in Syria – and that means the Assad regime.”

Administration officials on Tuesday confirmed that Mr. Obama has authorized surveillance flights over Syrian territory to assess and pinpoint IS positions inside the civil-war-ravaged country, in particular the location of the militant group’s leadership. Such reconnaissance activity could be the precursor to airstrikes on IS targets such as those the US is carrying out across the border in Iraq.

The president has made no decision to expand airstrikes beyond northern Iraq into Syria, his spokesman Josh Earnest said Tuesday. But he suggested that if such action is taken, it will not be in coordination with Assad.

The US does not recognize Assad as Syria’s legitimate leader, Mr. Earnest said. Other White House officials say Obama sees Assad as the source of Syria’s problems and not as a lesser evil to work with against a worse enemy.

Obama has called for Assad to step down since the early days of the Syrian conflict in 2011, insisting that it was the leader’s brutal repression of his own people that spawned the civil war and that allowed IS and other Islamist extremist groups to flourish.

Whatever course Obama takes on Syria, it will almost certainly be limited and focused on degrading IS, some say. “What they’re talking about is going after the group’s leadership inside Syria, which is very different from getting involved in Syria’s civil war,” says Lawrence Korb, a former Pentagon official now focusing on national security policy at the Center for American Progress in Washington.

But not everyone agrees that it will be possible to go after the one in Syria – IS militants – without at least tacitly acknowledging the need for the other – Assad – no matter how despised he is.

Syria’s foreign minister, Walid al-Muallem, said Tuesday that his country is ready to cooperate with the US and other Western countries in fighting IS. But the Syrian government, he also warned, would consider any airstrikes carried out without government approval an “aggression.”

That may be an idle threat, however, some say, since most of Assad’s remaining air defense systems are in the south and west of the country – not in the north and east, where IS controls about a third of Syrian territory.

The US can strike IS positions and command centers in northern Syria without worrying too much about Assad’s air defense systems, “or whatever he has left of them,” says Mr. Desch of Notre Dame.

On the other hand, degrading IS and keeping it contained will require two things, he says: boots on the ground and some centralized power to maintain some semblance of control. And both of those requirements mean “it is time to give up the chimera of regime change” in Syria.

“If you really want to keep ISIS in check, it will have to include some ground component,” Desch says. But if you rule out American or other Western forces, as Obama and other leaders have, “then the only option left is to hope that the Syrian military can come in to do the dirty work.”

The Obama administration says it is ramping up support, including training and arms, for moderate armed opposition forces, including the Free Syrian Army. In the eyes of some, it is the moderate opposition, more than IS and other terrorist groups, that Assad fears over the long term.

But Desch says the US will have to be realistic and accept that Syria’s “moderates” are not a viable option. They simply don’t have anything near the capabilities of the Kurdish peshmerga or even the Iraqi security forces on the Iraq side of the border, he says.

“We counted on the ‘moderate opposition’ in Libya, but it didn’t exist, and now look at what’s going on there,” he says. With Islamist factions gaining ground in Libya, the US recently shuttered its embassy in Tripoli.

“We need to learn a lesson from that,” Desch says. “The moderates don’t exist as a significant force in Syria, so it’s not an option if our objective is going to be to keep ISIS degraded.”

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