Members of the Iraqi security forces stand guard at a checkpoint in the Bansher district, 15 kilometers south of Kirkuk, Iraq, on June 20, 2014.

Members of the Iraqi security forces stand guard at a checkpoint in the Bansher district, 15 kilometers south of Kirkuk, Iraq, on June 20, 2014. Emad Matti/AP

Fight the Islamic State in Iraq? Sure. In Syria? Not So Much

There’s consensus in Washington about fighting the Islamic State in Iraq, but when it comes to Syria, things get messy. By Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

Iraq was once seen as the wrong war; now, it has become the more palatable one. In its place is Syria, which has become the pariah nation at the core of the conflict, the country no one wants to touch.  As the Obama administration takes to Capitol Hill to explain and build support for its plan to counter the Islamic State, airstrikes in Iraq have aroused far less anxiety than the idea of arming moderate rebel groups and possibly attacking IS strongholds in Syria.

“Our actions will not be restrained by a border in name only,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Tuesday in testimony alongside Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey before the Senate Armed Services Committee as he stated that American advisors will “not have a combat mission.”

On the other hand, the priorities are clear.

“This is an Iraq-first strategy,” Dempsey said at the same hearing, before going on to say that it was not Iraq-only. “We will simultaneously pressure ISIL (the Islamic State) in Syria.”

Dempsey noted the difference in goals.

“We can destroy ISIL in Iraq,” Dempsey says.  And “disrupt ISIL in Syria.”

Yet those inside the administration who have argued for a robust train-and-equip program for Syrian rebels say that the country at the center of the Islamic State’s rise is secondary in the mind of an administration that has from the outset wanted to avoid intervening in the bloody civil war.

“They don’t want to be involved in Syria, and they basically want to firewall Iraq,” one Obama administration official said on the condition of anonymity. “It is unrealistic.”

"The pro-Iraq crowd is winning,” the official said. 

“The time has come for President [Bashar] Assad to step aside,” President Barack Obama said three years ago.  But today, the administration has moved far from that stance in actions, if not in word.

(Related: House Republicans Find Obama's Plans in Syria 'Unrealistic')

“It is going to be just about ISIL, and it is never going to be about Bashar,” said the official of U.S. military intervention in the conflict.

Republican Sen. John McCain picked up on precisely this thread of questioning at Tuesday’s hearing and tested the administration’s “ISIL-first” stance.

“If the Free Syrian Army units are attacked from the air by Bashar Assad, will we prevent those attacks from taking place and take out Bashar Assad’s air assets, both helicopter and fixed wing, that will be attacking the Free Syrian Army units?” McCain asked Hagel.

“We’re, first of all, not there yet. But our focus is on ISIL, and that is the threat,” Hagel answered.

“I take it from your answer that we are now recruiting these young men to go and fight in Syria against ISIL, but if they’re attacked by Bashar Assad, we’re not going to help them?” McCain countered.

Many of the most “pro-Syria” officials are no longer working every day on the conflict. Former U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford left his post earlier this year in frustration with administration policy – specifically, its inaction -- on Syria.

But Ford says he thinks the $500 million the administration has requested to train and equip Syrian rebels is a step in the right direction.

“In the last six months the administration has recognized that this is one big conflict, Iraq and Syria, that it is two fronts of one problem,” Ford says. “You can’t fix it just by addressing Iraq -- you are going to have to deal with the Syria side as well.”

"It is going to be incumbent on the administration and people like me who think there is a moderate Syrian opposition to work with to make that case to the American public, but at same time everyone has to understand this is going to be a long-term process.”

Ford notes that there remain those within the administration who continue to believe the conventional wisdom about the FSA fighters’ lack of coherence and reliability.

“There are people divided in the administration, and they tend to look at The New York Times rather than looking at the granular analysis, and yet The New York Times hasn’t had a reporter in Aleppo in a long time,” Ford said.

(Related: Not Fighting the Islamic State Could Be Worse Than Fighting It)

Many on the Hill share the White House’s long-held desire to stay out of Syria.  While the strikes in Iraq are viewed by many as having congressional authorization, the train-and-equip mission already is running into opposition.

“We’re going to go in and try to carve out 3,000 or 5,000 of those people and say, ‘OK, now we want you to turn right and fight ISIL?'” Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin told reporters Tuesday. He said he would vote against the $500 million train-and-equip proposal. During a House floor debate on Monday, many members asked aloud just how the U.S. would vet and approve the Free Syrian Army rebels to receive equipment, and whether it was possible to be certain they would indeed be “moderate” forces?

These are the same questions the administration has held from the start, former administration officials say. Such concerns were understandable, but eventually the cost of inaction did grow clearer.  Six months in, they say, the national security team wasn’t certain how the endgame might go. But three years later, there are definitely people who could rightly claim they “told you so.”

“The problem with this team is that they believe that they can carve off bits and pieces of stuff and they forget the deep connective tissue you have between some of these crises,” a former Obama administration national security official said on condition of anonymity. “They won’t open their minds up to a worst-case scenario; it is almost like they can’t bear to go there.”

For their part, those who want to see more U.S. intervention in Syria say they hope that the moderate rebels can hang on long enough to continue to hold Aleppo and convince the U.S. public that they are indeed worthy of weapons and support.

“We know a lot of FSA, and at the working level we have been helping them for more than a year,” Ford said. “I am sick of hearing we don’t know who these people are. Baloney.”