Our murky mission in Syria [Editorial]

President Barack Obama went to the United Nations this week to rally the world against what he called "the network of death" embodied by the Islamic State and other extremist groups that have captured large parts of Iraq and Syria in recent months. Mr. Obama said that such groups only understand "the language of force" and that confronting their brutality compels the world "to look into the heart of darkness." But for all the president's soaring rhetoric about the need to defeat ISIS, it's unclear whether he can do that without putting American boots on the ground — something he has repeatedly ruled out — or whether he could survive the political fallout at home from doing so if that eventually became necessary.

So far polls show Americans generally support Mr. Obama's stated policy of "degrading and destroying" ISIS through airstrikes while arming and training regional forces to retake territory on the ground. Since announcing that strategy, Mr. Obama has assembled what he calls a broad coalition of Western and regional allies that includes France, the U.K. and Germany as well as five Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. But while they all have signed on to participate in the U.S.-led effort, their exact role is less clear — most notably whether any of the Arab countries will send their own ground troops into battle.

For the moment, Mr. Obama seems to be counting on the Iraqi army, Sunni tribal militias and Kurdish pesh merga forces to do the brunt of the fighting on the ground in Iraq, and on the moderate Syrian opposition to play a similar role there. But the latter won't be adequately trained and equipped for at least a year, maybe more, while the Sunni tribes, the Kurds and the Iraqi army have a long history of mutual mistrust that could make it difficult to coordinate their military effort on the ground. That complicated legacy increases the likelihood American trainers and advisers might eventually have to accompany them into the field to make sure they end up working together.

Even if American trainers and advisers aren't drawn into direct combat against ISIS, they may find their way onto to the battlefield as forward air controllers and spotters for U.S. and allied airstrikes. Last week Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno said that eventually it might be necessary to deploy more U.S. forces to Iraq beyond the 1,600 troops already there and that the fight against the Islamic State not only will intensify in coming months but that it could go on for years. Though the president has portrayed America's initial role in the fighting as limited, the possibility of it turning into a slippery slope toward greater involvement cannot be dismissed.

That's all the more reason Mr. Obama must seek authorization from Congress to confront the ISIS threat. The president insists that he already has all the authority he needs to take action based on previous congressional resolutions approving the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But if the prospect is for another open-ended Mideast war, Congress should debate the matter and vote on it based on the merits. It's shameful that lawmakers have tried to dodge such a fateful issue by putting it off until after mid-term elections.

Among the things lawmakers need to consider are the convoluted relationships among the various parties and the odd bedfellows that have resulted. For example, this week's airstrikes in Syria targeted the Islamic State and the Khorasan group, another terrorist network that U.S. officials say is a direct threat to the U.S. and Europe. Both are foes of Syrian President Bashar Assad, whom the U.S. wants to see deposed, but the U.S. airstrikes paradoxically may have the unintended consequences of helping him stay in power. Similarly, by helping Iraq's Shiite-led army resist ISIS, the U.S. also strengthens Shiite Iran and its Syrian ally Bashar Assad — much to the dismay of America's Sunni allies in Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E. and Jordan.

Throw into the mix that U.S. ground forces could one way or another ultimately be deployed back to the region without congressional advice or consent and you have a perfect storm of conflicted and conflicting alliances that could leave the region even more unstable than it already is. Mr. Obama's plan for a limited conflict aimed at ridding the world of the menace of ISIS sounds reasonable enough, but the U.S.' unhappy recent history in the region suggests achieving that goal may be far more difficult than it appears. That's why we need an explicit debate about our nation's aims and what exactly we're willing to do to achieve them.

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