Reports President Obama authorized surveillance flights over Syria suggest he is beginning to seize the moment given to him by the horrific execution of American journalist, James Foley. If he authorizes airstrikes into Syria against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), even over the horizon from Iraq, it could reinforce the “moderate” Free Syrian Army against both ISIS and Assad. Even if such strikes also helped Assad against ISIS, they would be worth the effort.
If the surveillance over Syria indicates the President if abandoning his strategy of defensive containment and going on the offensive with a mini-surge—sending additional military advisors to Iraq in a rollback strategy to defeat ISIS, the surveillance is in the American interests. Rolling back ISIS from Iraq makes more sense if the President authorizes or our partners conduct raids into Syria, because ISIS forces will flee to eastern Syria when attacked in northwest Iraq.
U.S. Special Forces can act as spotters to identify targets in Syria, as they do in Iraq; otherwise, widening the battlefield space would not be as effective against ISIS. The President shattered his own campaign pledge of “not placing boots on the ground,” when he authorized deployment of U.S. military advisors in Iraq: They are at risk, walk on the ground, and wear boots. The deteriorating strategic landscape in Iraq gives the President political space to act in the national interest and jettison his prior vow not to be drawn into another land war.
Iraqi Prime Minister-Designate Haider Al-Abadi is seeking a more inclusive government in Baghdad with the backing of Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani; hence, Iraqi politics are propitious for Obama to switch from containment to rollback.
Real Clear Politics reveals the President’s low popularity: As of July 29-August 20, (42% approve; 52% disapprove across nine different polls), driven mainly by foreign affairs during July 29-August 12, (35.8% approve; 53.8% disapprove over six polls).
A poll of Americans by Pew-USA TODAY taken August 14-17, prior to 10 August release of the execution video, indicates support (54%, approve; 31 % disapprove) of U.S. airstrikes in Iraq, but concern about getting too involved (51% worry about mission creep; 32% worry Washington will not do enough to stop the Islamists). Responsibility to act in Iraq, moreover, increased between July and August, suggesting the assassination will result in greater support for a more robust military policy in Iraq and Syria.
The Yazidis have origins in northwest Iraq and also are located in nearby countries, including Syria. Saving them in Iraq is insufficient: They can be attacked in Syria by ISIS. Now that Washington has used airdrops and airstrikes against Islamists who laid siege against Yazidis in Iraq, it is difficult to justify forsaking them because they crossed a frontier.
Others to consider are Iranian dissidents, who have shared intelligence on Iran with the U.S. military that saved American lives in Iraq; It is also in accord with our ideals to get them to third countries, including the United States, where they can be safe. They are under siege from Baghdad at the behest of Tehran. As the only Iranian opposition rejecting clerical rule, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI) is persecuted in Iraq, an ally of Iran.
A hint of an impending crackdown on the PMOI where they are resident in Camp Liberty, Iraq comes from Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who was in Baghdad on August 25. He praised Iraq for fighting terrorism and pledged to work against it with the new government. When Iranian officials speak of terrorism, they unjustifiably include the PMOI alongside ISIS; in fact, the PMOI strongly condemns ISIS.
General Qasem Soleimani of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Qods Force also may be in Iraq, partly to oversee another attack on Camp Liberty. Documents from inside Iran obtained by the PMOI show Tehran instructed now caretaker-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to prepare for another assault on Camp Liberty. If Prime Minister-Designate Haider Al-Abadi were able to avoid following the precedent of his predecessor to do the will of Tehran, then Iranian dissidents might have a chance to get out of Iraq safely.
Hopefully, President Obama will see that interests, politics, and ideals converge for him to continue seizing the day in the Middle East with a fresh approach that fits the changed strategic landscape.