On Sunday, September 28, President Barack Obama looked straight into the eyes of 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft during his interview at the White House and uttered something that most Americans would find hard to disagree with. "Syria is... challenging, because the U.S. has few viable allies on the ground there." But the policy that his administration is beginning to carry out, Obama counseled, will increase the amount of eyes that the United States can depend on to realize the ultimate goals of defeating both the Islamic State and the Assad regime in Syria.
As the president outlined on September 10, an instrumental component of the anti-ISIL counterterrorism policy is the train-and-advisery mission that the U.S. and its Arab partners will set up in Saudi Arabia for the moderate Syrians -- the same people who represent the best shot at claiming land that the terrorist group currently holds. The problem, as numerous military experts like retired Air Force Col. Rick Francona have pointed out, is that the Saudi-based training program will not be large enough to churn out the tens of thousands of fighters that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey believes will be required to flush ISIL out. U.S. planners expect to train 5,000 Syrian moderates during the first year, but those fighters won't be ready to deploy inside Syria for 8-12 months.
And therein begs the question that more people are asking as the operation proceeds: who in Syria is going to capitalize on the airstrikes that U.S. and Arab aircraft will continue to conduct over the months ahead?
On the Iraqi side of the border, the picture is a little less ambiguous; as terrible a performance that the Iraqi army put up in June, there are still better trained Iraqi units that U.S. advisers and operators can rely on, including the Kurdish peshmerga forces. The Mosul Dam, the Haditha Dam, Sinjar Mountain, and Amerli would still be under the control of Islamic State militants today if it weren't for the combination of U.S. air power and local Iraqis on the ground who were taking advantage of the payloads dropped above their heads.
No such luck in Syria, where the best allies that the U.S.-led coalition has are the fragmented moderate opposition commonly referred to as the Free Syrian Army. Those are the same fighters, by the way, that have a thin presence in the very same provinces (Raqqa, Deir ez-Zor, Hassakah) that need to be retaken from the Islamic State. The awesome power of the U.S. Air Force can destroy ISIL targets at a safe distance with what is remarkable tactical efficiency and accuracy. What air power alone cannot do, as Chairman Dempsey, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and President Obama have all said, is recapture territory. You need reliable fighters that you can trust to do that job.
Military operations in Syria are not even a week old, but you can already see that some in Washington are getting impatient with the administration's approach and concerned that the strategy now being employed will not match up to the lofty objective that the White House has ordered. Speaker John Boehner commented to ABC News this Sunday that despite what the president said, U.S. combat boots may need to be used in Syria if others are not up to the task. "At the end of the day," says Boehner, "I think it's going to take more than air strikes to drive them out of there. At some point somebody's boots have to be on the ground."
That opinion could be quickly dismissed by the administration as political opportunism if it weren't for the fact that Chairman Dempsey, the president's principle military adviser, told reporters during a news briefing virtually the same exact thing, couched in different language: if such a course were required to accomplish the goal, he would recommend that U.S. personnel get deeper into the fight. When faced with a recommendation from his top military commander, most likely with the unanimous approval of the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff, can the president really reject that advice?
Whatever the case, someone needs to be taking that lost ground in eastern Syria. The moderate opposition will try its best, but it's best may not be good enough given the extreme set of circumstances that moderates will face in a hostile environment that has been ISIL territory for the entire year. If the 5,000 rebels being trained by the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan are not ready for another 12 months, the air forces of the U.S, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Jordan, and Bahrain may very well be put into the situation of being enforcers of a no-fly zone above Raqqa, Deir ez-Zor, and Hasakah. Otherwise, what force on the ground is capable of preventing ISIL from seeping back into these areas?
You can almost see the handwriting on the wall: the president, six months later, chairing a meeting of his National Security Council, and getting the same advice from his Defense Secretary, Chairman, Secretary of State, and Director of National Intelligence on the necessity of U.S. trainers deploying closer to the front-lines.
General Dempsey said he would warn you, Mr. President.