Is There a Plan to Attack in Syria or Not?

An Iraqi Shiite fighter clashes with Islamic State militants in Jurf al-Sakhar, 43 miles south of Baghdad, on August 18, 2014.

Hadi Mizban/AP

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An Iraqi Shiite fighter clashes with Islamic State militants in Jurf al-Sakhar, 43 miles south of Baghdad, on August 18, 2014.

White House and Pentagon spokesmen spent Friday explaining that the president and the Joint Chiefs have some plans to strike in Syria, but there is no plan. By Kevin Baron

So, to recap, there is no U.S. plan to strike the Islamic State or any other targets inside Syria because the Pentagon is still drawing them up, except that the Pentagon and the president have been reviewing military plans of attack for a while.

That’s the message White House and Pentagon spokesman spent a considerable amount of time and oxygen on Friday attempting to explain as questions swirled about whether the president’s national security team had a strategy to defeat the Islamic State group, exactly what military plans have reached the commander in chief’s desk already and what new he has asked from the Pentagon.

President Obama caused a stir on Thursday when he said, “We don’t have a strategy yet.” Obama’s now-viral sound bite came as he was attempting to explain to reporters what steps his administration is taking to defeat the Islamic State. But immediately after his White House briefing room appearance, White House spokesman Josh Earnest went on CNN to clarify that Obama specifically meant he did not have a plan to strike the group inside Syria. The United States certainly was engaging the Islamic State inside Iraq.

For two years, the president has chosen not to launch air strikes in Syria, which would aid the rebel moderates. The closest the U.S. military came to attacking was in September 2013, when Congress rejected Obama’s request for approval—a request not required of the commander in chief and one that was seen as a political move. But two months after extremist fighters in Syria coalesced as the Islamic State and stormed deep into Iraq, the U.S. launched airstrikes to degrade the group and win back key positions for Iraqi and Kurdish forces—nearly 110 airstrikes so far. Those daily sorties continue with the invitation of the Iraqi government.

Attacking inside Syria’s border carries significantly more complex international complications since Russia and Iran have backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against the mix of fighters trying to overthrow his government, including U.S.-backed moderates and extremists of the Islamic State.  Earlier this summer, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said the U.S military needed greater intelligence on potential targets inside Syria.

“The Pentagon is still developing military options for the president, for the commander in chief, to use against ISIL in Syria,” Earnest said on Friday. He repeated some version of that phrase several times during his daily press briefing.

“The president hasn’t yet laid out a specific plan for military action in Syria. And the reason for that is simply that the Pentagon is still developing that plan. He’s still reviewing them,” he said.

Short of a “specific plan,” however, Earnest said the president has reviewed some military strike options in Syria already.

“I’m not going to get into a detailed play-by-play of the back-and-forth between the president and his senior military advisers,” Earnest said. “But I will tell you as a general matter that the president has been discussing with his national security team and with his senior team at the Pentagon the range of options that are or may be available to him for countering ISIL militarily, both in Iraq and in Syria.”

At the Pentagon, spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said that while the military has been watching Islamic State fighters for months, they have not been planning for airstrikes inside Syria until recently.

“The thought process of potentially going into, you know, doing military airstrikes into Syria is a relatively new one. So it’s not like we’ve been doing that for months,” he said. “We’ve been watching ISIL for months. We certainly have done a bit of planning and execution inside Iraq. But the Syria component is relatively new. We continue to refine and work on options.”

The entire episode is emblematic of the larger frustration from Obama’s critics who argue the United States should have launched military strikes in Syria and Iraq much sooner, when rebels were considered to have an upper hand against Assad and long before the Islamic State morphed into the conglomerate of fighters it is today. Obama has pushed back forcefully, however, saying essentially that military intervention certainly could degrade extremist forces, but that entering the Syrian conflict would make matters worse and Iraq needed to fight for itself.

“The idea that the United States or any outside power would perpetually defeat ISIS I think is unrealistic,” Obama said on Thursday.

Earnest, on Friday, said, “There are some who have called for the president to take action or order military action in Syria. The Pentagon is developing plans or military options for the president to consider if he decides that it’s necessary to do so. But at this point the president hasn’t made any decisions and hasn’t ordered any military action in Syria. But if he does take that step, it will be one that is carefully considered, one that is deliberately arrived at and one that will be made in close consultation with the United States Congress.”

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