As Pentagon preps for more airstrikes on ISIS, U.S. faces conundrum

As the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) continues to amass territory across northern Iraq and Syria, U.S. officials face imperfect options for trying to slow or stop the group's growing power that is destabilizing the Middle East.

For now, President Obama has authorized surveillance flights over ISIS' safe haven in Syria in preparation for possible strikes by the U.S. military.

One line of thinking is to arm the more moderate opposition groups in Syria to fight ISIS, national security experts argue, but that move is fraught with risk and ultimately may not solve the problem. Ultimately, the U.S. may see no choice but to carry out airstrikes against ISIS targets in Syria, though that solution has its own set of complications, experts say.

So far, U.S. airstrikes against ISIS have been limited to Iraq for humanitarian reasons and to defend American facilities and personnel there.

But now the Pentagon has begun planning for airstrikes in Syria that use both manned and unmanned aircraft to attack ISIS targets, CBS News National Security Correspondent David Martin reports. The goal would be to disrupt the group's operations and kill senior leaders.

The planning appears to be born out of a desire to be prepared for the possibility that a more powerful ISIS could pose a direct threat to the U.S. in a way military officials say it does not at the moment.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Monday that President Obama has not yet made a decision on whether to pursue military action inside Syria.

Last week, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey made it clear that ISIS cannot be defeated by just tackling the militants in Iraq.

"That will have to be addressed on both sides of what is essentially at this point a nonexistent border. And that will come when we have a coalition in the region that takes on the task of defeating ISIS over time," he said. "ISIS will only truly be defeated when it's rejected by the 20 million disenfranchised Sunni that happen to reside between Damascus and Baghdad."

That's certainly the best way to try to deprive the group of strength in Iraq, where they are most likely to ignite a sectarian war, and potentially weaken them in Syria, said James Jeffrey, the former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq who is now at the Washington Institute.

"The more you start taking these guys down and showing that...history isn't marching in their direction the more they lose sympathy, they lose support," he told CBS News.

The U.S. also has far more reliable partners to take the fight to ISIS in the form of the Iraqi Security Forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga troops.

But the U.S. should also begin arming more moderate rebels in Syria as a second step, he said.

"Arming those people immediately would help them fight off Assad and ISIS. That is what I call containment, what we've been doing up to now in Iraq is containment and that's not necessarily a bad thing," he said.

Ben Connable, a senior international policy analyst at the Rand Corporation, similarly said the best strategy right now is to provide more aggressive support to the less radical organizations on the ground, though that strategy always carries the risk of empowering groups that later behave in ways harmful to U.S. interests.

"There's risk across the board here and simply defeating ISIS is not going to end the Syrian Civil War either," he said. Moreover, he added, "I don't hold that much hope that the moderate Syrian opposition forces would be able to defeat ISIS at this point but nothing is impossible. We see the fortunes of war shift very quickly in both Syria and Iraq."

Part of the difficulty in Syria is the sheer number of interests competing for power there. The U.S. has called on Assad to step down, but the most powerful group currently working toward defeating him is the al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, a group once aligned with ISIS.

The more moderate opposition forces in Syria, including the Free Syrian Army and the armed wing of the Syrian Kurdish party, are weaker than al-Nusra, Center for International Studies terrorism expert Tom Sanderson told CBS News.

Coordinating an assault on ISIS with those groups "will take exceptional agility, and political will and capability on the part of the U.S.," he said.

Even airstrikes, which back those opposition forces with the power of the U.S. military, risk sending a message to the rest of the Sunni world that the U.S. is helping the Assad government. Syria's foreign minister said Monday that his country would welcome U.S. assistance in defeating ISIS - so long as Assad was warned first.

"If there is the slightest whiff in the air that the U.S. is protecting or preserving Assad's Shia government --and by extension, the Shia chain stretching from Hezbollah's Beirut to Damascus to Baghdad and on to Tehran -- then we're in deep trouble with the Sunni world and Israel," Sanderson said.

And U.S. allies like Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and others that the U.S. should look to as leaders in the right against ISIS "are afraid to and lack the capability," Sanderson said.

He said he would be "very surprised if we did not see with a decision to go forward without significant use of special operations forces," in Syria, which will also require the president to gin up support from a reluctant Congress and American public.

"I simply can't imagine a more complicated problem than this one," Sanderson said.

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.

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