Last year, war-weary Americans forced President Obama and congressional leaders to abandon an ill-advised attack on the Assad regime in Syria. Now, nearly one year to the day later, the president has decided that it is again time to drop bombs in Syria. But this time, the targets will be a subsection of the rebels, known as the Islamic State or ISIS, who are currently fighting the Syrian and Iraqi governments.
The rapidly-shifting mission appears to have satisfied the American public, who are telling pollsters they want strikes against IS. But Americans are being misled. The reality is that although the initial target may have shifted, the long-term goal is still regime change in Syria. This is not a peripheral interest; it is an integral part of the president’s plan to confront ISIS in Syria.
Regime change is inherent in the quest to destroy the Islamic State. The president—along with John McCain, Lindsay Graham, and other neocons—recognizes that as long as a civil war exists in Syria, ISIS or a similar element will exist there, spilling over the border and destabilizing America’s utopian project in Iraq. This reality forces Americans who want to intervene to stop ISIS to choose between Assad and the rebellion.
Furthermore, as a practical matter, America will need to have “boots on the ground,” either our own or those acting on our behalf, to clean out ISIS rebels and retake territory after the bombs fall. But after the events of last year, Obama is locked into an anti-Assad position, so he will attempt what Conor Friedersdorf has dubbed the “mission impossible” strategy: destroy Assad and IS simultaneously.
In fact, while the president refuses to come to Congress to ask for authority to commit U.S. troops to war, he has asked them to authorize $500 million to train “moderate” Syrian rebels and equip them with heavy weaponry. This fund would build on shipments from to 2012 to get aid to “vetted” rebel groups, which included nonlethal aid, as well as light weaponry and anti-tank missiles.
The other reasons for the regime change strategy flow from these facts. If Obama is not going to work with Assad on strikes, American special forces will almost definitely be embedded with U.S.-backed rebels to vet groups and coordinate bombing targets. If a rebel group with U.S. forces comes under attack by Assad forces instead of ISIS, the U.S. will be thrown into a direct war with Assad.
Finally, the last reason is that the Assad regime has already declared that U.S. airstrikes in Syria without Assad’s approval are “an act of aggression.” The Syrian armed forces have anti-aircraft weaponry capable of taking down U.S. planes. We will absolutely be at war with Syria if we attack ISIS there–legally, if not actually. It is only a matter of time before the bombs catch up with the policy.
The 90 percent of Americans who were anxious about Sec. Kerry’s “unbelievably small” attack against Assad last year will be displeased when they discover the broad objectives of this “new” plan. Hawks are mistaking consistent support for killing terrorists with eagerness for nation-building. In fact, a majority of Americans are already more concerned that this mission will go too far than that it will not go far enough.
Americans will be even more displeased when they see how hopeless Obama’s plan really is. We already have lessons in how violent revolutions create breeding grounds for radical jihadis in Iraq and Libya. War is the lifeblood of radicalism, and Obama is planning to light the Middle East on fire and hoping that only the positive elements don’t burn. This is beyond unlikely. It is impossible.