President Barack Obama’s decision to expand airstrikes in Iraq and extend them to Syria raises a host of questions about how an intensified military campaign can achieve his goal of destroying the Islamic State group.
A look at how the president’s plan may unfold and its prospects for success:
Q: Why conduct more bombing in Iraq?
A: When he first authorized airstrikes in early August, Obama linked them to a few limited objectives, including defending U.S. personnel and facilities, helping besieged civilians and protecting critical infrastructure like the Mosul Dam. In his speech Wednesday, Obama opened a new range of target possibilities, and the Pentagon is now free to hit any Islamic State group targets it deems necessary anywhere in the country.
The Pentagon’s press secretary, Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, said Thursday this means a “more aggressive” U.S. campaign in Iraq, supported for the first time by manned intelligence-gathering planes based inside Iraq.
Q: What good can that do, given the collapse of Iraqi forces in June when the militants swept across northern Iraq?
A: The idea is to use a broader air campaign to help Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces roll back the Islamic State group’s gains. This is to be aided by teams of U.S. military advisers who will embed with Iraqi brigade headquarters — not to fight alongside Iraqi soldiers or to call in U.S. airstrikes but to advise Iraqi forces on how to retake and hold territory that the militants would be forced to abandon if the airstrikes are as effective as hoped.
The Pentagon said Thursday that there will be 15 to 20 such advisory teams, with about a dozen U.S. soldiers each.
Q: What’s to stop the militants from using Syria as a sanctuary?
A: It already is a sanctuary. Obama says he will eliminate that by expanding the U.S. air campaign into eastern Syria. It’s not clear when airstrikes in Syria will begin, but the Pentagon says it is ready to start now. Officials won’t talk about potential targets, since that would unnecessarily jeopardize their effectiveness and raise the risk to U.S. pilots, but they likely would include Islamic State group buildings, training sites and supply lines.
Q: Can airstrikes force the Islamic State group out of Syria?
A: Almost certainly not. The hope is that the airstrikes will play the same role foreseen in Iraq — to create opportunities for local ground forces to squeeze the territory occupied by the Islamic State group militants. The problem in Syria is finding sufficient numbers of capable and moderate forces to work with. U.S. efforts to date have not been successful, and now Congress is balking at authorizing the Pentagon to begin a more ambitious program of training and arming an indigenous land force inside Syria.
Q: How effectively can the U.S. empower local forces in Syria, given the civil war in that chaotic country?
A: Many people doubt that it can be done, but Obama says he wants to take some number of the more moderate forces opposing the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad and send them to Saudi Arabia for training and arming. But it’s unclear whether that will work. Michael O’Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution, says these opposition forces are the same “hodgepodge of weak, fractured, local resistance elements” that were available for U.S. training and equipping when the Syria conflict began three years ago.
Q: What makes the Islamic State such a tough foe?
A: Although some have described the group as the most fearsome jihadi outfit of all — more menacing than al-Qaida — its military might is limited. For instance it has no significant air defense capability. The weaponry it does possess is getting hit regularly by U.S. airstrikes; the Pentagon said Wednesday that 212 Islamic State group targets have been damaged or destroyed over the past five weeks, including 162 military vehicles.
Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says only about one-third of the Islamic State group force — which others have estimated may total 20,000 to 30,000 fighters — are highly skilled.
Cordesman believes Iraqi government forces can handle them with U.S. assistance, although he predicted in an analysis published Tuesday that it probably will take several years to create sufficient political and military unity in Iraq to fully defeat the Islamic State group forces there.
“There is no clear timeframe for a similar defeat in Syria,” he added.
Q: Wouldn’t the campaign against the Islamic State group work better if the U.S. sent its own ground forces to Syria or Iraq?
A: In the short run, perhaps it would. The U.S. military showed in its 2003 invasion of Iraq, which captured Baghdad in less than a month of fighting, that it can overmatch any army in the Mideast. The problem is translating initial battlefield gains into a durable solution to problems that at their core are political, economic and social. Obama said in his speech Wednesday that Iraq and its neighbors are indispensable partners.
“American power can make a decisive difference, but we cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves, nor can we take the place of Arab partners in securing their region,” Obama said.