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White House gives few answers on US mission in Syria

As the dust settles on the first US airstrikes in Syria, an air of confusion remains: What’s the real US mission in Syria? Are we trying to save hundreds of thousands of Kurds who have been besieged by Islamic State militants? Or are we trying to eradicate a little-known terrorist group called “Khorasan”? And what will we do if we actually do defeat the Islamic State and President Bashar al Assad sends his tanks to retake the area?

President Obama in remarks this morning didn’t fully address these questions, and we shouldn’t expect them to be answered any time soon. But the debate over when US airstrikes should cross into Syrian territory has been settled: The United States led an attack last night on several cities thought of as strongholds of the Islamic State, also called ISIS or ISIL.


The attack came after Kurds on Syria’s northern border issued a desperate cry for help to defend themselves against the Islamic State. The militant group had laid siege to the city of Kobane (also called Ayn al-Arab) last Thursday. An estimated 150,000 Kurds fled northward, to Turkey, in what is being described as the largest mass exodus of the Syrian civil war so far. Turkey responded by closing its border with Syria, a move that trapped would-be refugees on the Syrian side of the border and prevented Kurdish militias in Turkey from rallying to their brethren’s aid.

Hadi al-Bahra, the president of the Syrian opposition coalition, told the New York Times hours before the US-led bombing campaign that the United States and its Arab partners must “act fast.”

Rallying to aid of innocent Kurds could be a reasonable and defensible strategy. The Kurds have shown the ability and willingness to fight off ISIS. They also want to be independent of Assad. They have a good shot at ruling themselves peacefully, should this threat to their security be eliminated.


But it is still unclear whether last night’s coordinated attack on militants in Syria was aimed at protecting Kurds in Syria. A Kurdish spokesman in the besieged area has said he has no knowledge of US airstrikes in the area.

Pentagon statements indicate that the US-led strikes hit targets in Raqqa, about 90 miles away from Kobane. Other cities that were hit included Dayr az Zawar, Hasakah, and Abu Kamal, closer to the Iraqi border.

Statements out of the US military highlighted the counter-terrorism aspect of the mission, not the humanitarian aid to the Kurds, who have been fighting the Islamic State for more than a year. The United States struck targets associated with the Khorasan Group, which US officials said was a network of “seasoned Al Qaeda veterans” that was allegedly plotting an “imminent attack . . . against the United States and western interests.”

So far, statements from US officials have indicated that the attacks against the Islamic State in Syria are meant to be secondary to attacks in Iraq.

Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has even used different verbs for what can be done to the group in each country.

“We can destroy ISIL in Iraq,” he said, but we can only “disrupt” the group in Syria.

Is that because the United States knows it can’t destroy ISIS in Syria, a place where the president has made it clear that US airstrikes are unwelcome? Or because we don’t want to destroy ISIS in Syria, because we want it around to pressure Assad? Are we hoping to degrade the group so slowly that it gives time for the “moderate” Syrian rebels we are supporting to build more strength? In his speech, the president said in addition to airstrikes, the US will “ramp up our effort to train and equip the Syrian opposition.”


Right now, however, there are more good questions than answers when it comes to US policy in Syria.

Of course, in the short term, striking ISIS in Syria makes sense, even in our goal is only to remove the group from Iraq. Anyone who has studied guerrilla warfare knows that as long as the group maintains a sanctuary in Syria, it will be able to menace Iraq. But, in the long term, our interference in the Syrian civil war will make us responsible for whatever happens next.

It is worth mentioning that hours before the airstrikes, Secretary of State John Kerry offered yet another reason for American intervention in Syria: the group’s destruction of numerous ancient religious sites, including the tomb of Jonah. While attending an event at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which highlighted threats to cultural heritage sites in Iraq and Syria, Kerry said:

“The destruction of their heritage is a purposeful final insult, and another example of ISIL’s implacable evil. ISIL is stealing lives, yes, but it’s also stealing the soul of millions. How shocking and historically shameful it would be if we did nothing while the forces of chaos rob the very cradle of our civilization.”


This rings true. But it’s a sentiment that we would have expected more from George W. Bush.

Farah Stockman can be reached at fstockman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fstockman.