Stephen Saideman is the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Carleton University
There are many good reasons why President Barack Obama has been reluctant to get the U.S. directly involved in Syria's civil war. The U.S. has already fought a number of wars and lesser conflicts in the Mideast since the terror attacks of September 11, with none leading to a satisfying outcome. This has exhausted the American armed forces, tested the patience of the American people, and cost trillions of dollars that can never be recouped. Until recently, public opinion was against any more conflict in or near Syria. Congress, too, has given Mr. Obama yet more reason to avoid involvement in Syria. The Republicans would prefer not to give him authority to act while complaining that the President is too weak and lacking leadership.
Leaving aside the complex domestic constraints, Mr. Obama faces a very serious problem in Syria: who to support? By fighting the Islamic State, Mr. Obama may end up supporting the Assad Regime. This is similar to the problem in Iraq, where helping Iraq might mean helping Iran. At least in Iraq there are two elements that the U.S. can support with only some qualms. The Kurds have a somewhat competent force, and they have done nearly all of the right things to suggest that they have popular support and, most important, are unlikely to turn their guns against the Americans. The government of Iraq could be an ally of the U.S. in this, especially since its interests are more directly implicated. The problem has been that the Shia-dominated government has broken the various agreements the U.S. had made with the Sunnis during the so-called Anbar Awakening. That movement was as – or more – essential to the decline in violence as the American surge.
Indeed, IS gained strength from precisely those Sunni groups that had allied with the U.S. against al-Qaeda. They had proved to be more violent than the U.S. Why are the Sunnis now with IS? Because the Shia of Iraq, supported by the Shia of Iran, have been seen as the greater threat. Perhaps the return of the Americans and the replacement of Iraq's President Maliki might lead to a more inclusive government, and thus undercut the support of the Sunnis for IS.
That is Mr. Obama's goal in Iraq, and it is a mighty big "ask." Will the Iraqi government reassure the Sunnis credibly? This will not be easy. But again, at least in Iraq, there are partners, even if they are not entirely reliable. Syria? There are no partners. The representations of the Free Syrian Army can make all kinds of claims, but the reality is that Mr. Obama has good reason not to invest too much in them. Aid is now coming, with Mr. Obama seeking more funds for training.
Air strikes are likely to be the most prominent American effort in the days ahead. Again, this is complicated – whose airspace is it? In Iraq, the U.S. can fly with the permission of the Iraq government which also lacks the ability to control that airspace. In Syria, the U.S. will either have to destroy Bashar Assad's air defenses or count on Mr. Assad's forces to let the American planes fly at will as they attack IS. And that would mean that the U.S. is a de facto partner of one of the most awful regimes on the planet, one that has been using chemical weapons against civilians, one that has been using barrel bombs against vulnerable citizens, and on and on.
There is one more wrinkle – IS wants the U.S. to fight it, that the recent spate of beheadings was deliberately aimed to provoke this reaction. Of course, this could be one of those situations of "be careful of what you ask for" but a U.S. embroiled in another Mideast conflict is a dream of recruiters for terrorist organizations. So, the U.S. must and will get those in the region to support them in this effort, but the Saudis and Qataris and others are not so reliable.
So, Mr. Obama is going to try what he says has worked elsewhere – rely on local partners to provide the ground forces while the U.S. and allies provide air support, intelligence, logistics and training. That the examples of success of this kind of strategy are Yemen and Somalia should not fill anyone with too much optimism.
IS's success does not pose a direct threat to the U.S., but it does pose a threat to the region. So, the U.S. has to respond. But given that the big interventions have not worked out so well, that the U.S. government is still trying to deal with a difficult fiscal picture, and that the regional allies are not especially reliable, it would be hard for the U.S. to do much more than bomb, advise and assist. Thus, this strategy is probably both the most and the least the U.S. can do.