Iraq Turmoil

What Are Obama's Options for Stomping Out ISIS in Iraq and Syria?

Image: A member loyal to the ISIL waves an ISIL flag in Raqqa

A member loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) waves an ISIL flag in Raqqa June 29, 2014. REUTERS

The videotaped killing of kidnapped journalist James Foley prompted President Barack Obama this week to condemn his ruthless executioners — the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS — as “a cancer.”

Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes went a step further Friday, vowing that the U.S. won’t cower to terrorists.

“We’ve made very clear time and again that if you come after Americans, we’re going to come after you wherever you are — and that’s what's going to guide our planning in the days to come,” Rhodes told reporters.


The marauding militant group wants to carve out an Islamic state straddling Syria and Iraq, essentially a jihadist safe haven. Stomping out ISIS now presents a number of options for the Obama administration — each one with its own advantages and potential pitfalls.

And with at least three other Americans, including freelance journalist Steven Sotloff, still being held hostage by the terror network, the U.S. is under even more pressure to outline an effective battle plan.

Here are tactics the U.S. is already using or may want to consider in its bid to thwart ISIS, according to counter-terrorism and foreign policy experts, and the pros and cons of pursuing each:


Continue an airstrike campaign that could include Syria

Why it could work: This month, the U.S. began a targeted campaign against ISIS in Iraq, focusing mainly on the Mosul Dam, which terrorists have threatened to overrun. The dam is key because it supplies power and water to millions. U.S. Central Command said Friday that 60 of the 93 airstrikes launched have been to support Iraqi and Kurdish forces on the ground as they root out ISIS from the areas around the dam. Officials say the action has been successful.

To further erode ISIS’s grip in the region, the U.S. could look into similar airstrikes in Syria, where the terror organization grew its ranks amid the civil war that began in 2011. Syria remains a refuge for ISIS members, and intelligence officials say some of its commanders have retreated there during the airstrikes in Iraq. It wasn’t immediately known whether self-appointed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has also fled to Syria.

Rhodes on Friday didn’t say specifically what new military plans Obama could be presented with, but suggested operations could extend past Iraq.

“We’re actively considering what’s going to be necessary to deal with [a] threat and not going to be restricted by borders,” Rhodes said.

Why there are drawbacks: “It’s not as simple as, ‘A-ha, bomb Syria now,’” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow with the national security think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies. The U.S. would have to decide how it would inform Syria's government and coordinate with its military forces, as the two countries maintain a chilly relationship.

In addition, the possibility of an air raid killing civilians in Syria, a country already decimated by war, would only bruise the U.S.’s image, Gartenstein-Ross said.

“In taking a heavier role, we have to make sure we don’t end up doing more harm than good — that we don’t end up killing civilian populations,” he added.


Put more U.S. troops on the field to train or possibly fight

Why it could work: While Obama has so far pledged to not put combat troops on the battlefield, he ordered last week for another 130 military “advisers” to deploy to northern Iraq to help protect minority sects threatened by ISIS. That’s on top of the nearly 800 troops already authorized to go to Iraq to assist and train the country’s forces against ISIS, which seeks to topple the central government in Baghdad.

While Obama may avoid having U.S. troops at the forefront of fighting, employing experienced American security forces would help — with theoretically 100 of these teams being deployed, said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow with the nonpartisan Brookings Institution. He said those forces wouldn’t be the main combat units in the field, but could assist Iraqi soldiers as needed in the heat of battle.

Why there are drawbacks: Military force is important, said Gartenstein-Ross, but troops on the ground, even in a background role, could get dicey. “It’s expensive, there’s absolutely a risk of troops getting killed and it could also serve as a symbol [of a U.S. invasion],” he added.

America’s past involvement in Iraq and continuing engagement in Afghanistan “shows how things can backfire,” Gartenstein-Ross said.

Aid ISIS’s enemies — including Syria’s president

Why it could work: ISIS's ability in the past few months to seize whole communities in Iraq while obtaining heavy weaponry is taken “very seriously,” Rhodes said. The group appears to have surpassed al Qaeda in its ability to attract funding and build its network.

Such a level of sophistication has led the U.S. to aid ISIS's enemies — the Iraqi government and Kurdish regional forces — with military support. That's something that must continue, said Gartenstein-Ross. He added that there are likely ISIS members who are malcontent, given the alleged atrocities carried out, and are willing to turn.

“This organization is extraordinarily brutal,” Gartenstein-Ross said. “If you can locate ISIS members who are dissatisfied and give them a chance to defect and then publicize their story, you start to create a public-relations campaign against ISIS.”


O’Hanlon said a deal with Syrian President Bashar Assad could be one alternative for the U.S. to wipe out ISIS. While Assad and the U.S. aren’t on friendly terms, both share this common enemy. As a compromise, the U.S. could consider allowing Assad to remain in control of part of Syria in exchange for the U.S. having a greater role in eliminating ISIS.

Why there are drawbacks: Aiding the Iraqi or Syrian governments doesn’t guarantee the U.S. and other Western nations admiration in the region. The U.S., for instance, would still need to hold Assad — himself accused of chemical weapons attacks on his own people — at arm’s length, experts say. In Iraq, there are also no guarantees the Shiite-led government in Baghdad will be as inclusive of the various sects — a major complaint among Sunni Muslims, who make up ISIS.

A new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, is poised to replace Nouri al-Maliki after he failed to quell the violence during his two terms in office. Obama has called for someone less divisive, but it’s unclear if U.S.-backed al-Abadi can deliver.

Maintain a less visible and heavy-handed profile in Iraq

Why it could work: The beheading of Foley, a 40-year-old freelance journalist for the Global Post, was apparently done in retaliation for U.S.-led airstrikes in recent weeks. Continuing or expanding American airstrikes could provoke ISIS again — leading to possible executions of other Western hostages, said Cyrus Ali Contractor, a political science professor at the University of Houston and a member of the Center for International and Comparative Studies. The U.S., while it can’t back down, also has to be careful about making the fight appear to be solely America versus ISIS, he added.

“I think it is better for America to declare a role in the back, coordinating some of these operations while helping the Iraqi military to get in shape and tackle this ISIS threat,” Contractor said. “America will need to tone it down, so to speak. Not be so blatant in what it’s doing.”

Why there are drawbacks: The decision on how to handle ISIS is as much a political one as it is a military operation, experts say. With midterm elections looming, Obama will have to look at whether a public show of force before November — or a more behind-the-scenes approach for now — would be warranted, observers say.

How he might best respond could be used against him by political foes who might perceive him as weak — and hurt Democrats running in the congressional midterm elections, Contractor said.

Either way, with ISIS losing some of its momentum in recent weeks, now is the time for a decisive course, Gartenstein-Ross said.

“We just have to be aware that any undertaking can’t be done with such a heavy hand that it would backfire on us,” he added.