This time around, as administration officials work up plans and build a potential international coalition to strike at the base of the Islamic State (IS) in Syria, the reluctant interventionist in the White House seems more likely to give military action the nod.
The basic reason is this: Mr. Obama views the IS Islamist extremist organization as a direct threat to Americans and to US national security interests. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose regime would have been the target of airstrikes last year, was not seen to rise to the same order and level of threat.
When Obama seemed on the verge of launching airstrikes in August 2013, it was about a despot’s heinous acts against his own people: Mr. Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians in the civil war wracking his country. Obama had set a “red line” for Assad concerning any use of his chemical weapons stockpiles, but there was never a worry that Assad was about to attack the US and thus posed a national security threat.
But the IS is viewed differently, and only more so after the group took the shocking and provocative step last week of beheading American journalist James Foley on camera and challenging Obama to back off or see more Americans die.
Earlier this month, Obama ordered airstrikes targeting IS militants in northern Iraq after they advanced on the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil, where the US has a consulate and personnel advising the peshmerga security forces.
The president justified that action in part as necessary for the protection of American personnel and US national security interests. He also said it was necessary to ward off a potential genocide of Iraq’s Yazidi minority.
Repetition of that reasoning as White House officials have debated intervention makes it virtually certain the same justification would be invoked in the case of action against IS (also known as ISIS or ISIL) in Syria.
Pentagon officials have said in recent days that IS poses a threat to the US at home, even if not imminently – and that addressing the terrorist group will require hitting it in Syria.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a press conference last week that defeating IS would require “addressing that part of the group that resides in Syria” as well as “on both sides of what is essentially at this point a nonexistent border” with Iraq.
Another element the administration will be factoring into any decision to launch military action against IS in Syria is Congress and whether to seek authorization.
Last year, Obama announced he would consult with Congress before launching airstrikes against the Assad regime – and the debate bogged down until the United States agreed with Russia on a deal for removing and destroying Assad’s stockpiles of chemical weapons. The airstrikes were off the table.
This time, many supporters of the administration seeking congressional authorization for military action inside Syria say they would expect a less contentious campaign for approval because the target would be IS and because of the threat the group is seen to pose to the US and US interests.
“If asked to embark on a wise, just and well-defined campaign against ISIL, the American Congress – and through it the American people – will likely consent,” says Jane Harman, director of the Wilson Center and former California congresswoman, writing on the center’s website. “But, in a democracy like ours, the choice is theirs,” she adds, calling Congress “AWOL” in the debate on how to address IS.
An irony of the action that would be taken in Syria this time around is that it could end up bolstering the very figure – Assad – who would have been the target last year had airstrikes been ordered.
Some opponents of US intervention in Syria say that hitting IS in Iraq is one thing, but that going into Syria would take the US into a whole new ballgame.
“Are we really going to intervene in a civil war where we look at the most powerful forces on both sides as intolerable?” says David Hendrickson, a professor of political science at Colorado College.
Despite his skepticism, Professor Hendrickson says that if military intervention against IS inside Syria is ordered, it will require the US to strike some deal with the “intolerable” still in charge of the largest armed forces in the country.
“There would have to be some kind of accommodation of Assad,” he says. “We’re not going to get where we want just by bombing ISIS, so we’d have to strike a deal where we say to Assad, ‘You have to go in and take territory back [from IS], but there are things you have to do in return,’ " like opening up to Syria’s political opposition and “offering guarantees to the country’s Sunnis,” he says.
Which is to say, Hendrickson adds, that launching airstrikes against IS in Syria won’t be a simple proposition.