When Eyada Hussein left his house in the Hasakah province of Syria four months ago militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) had set up a checkpoint just 100 meters from his home.
“You have to understand, if ISIS is here, then there are regular people just here,” said Hussein pointing from one side of the narrow street to the other, in this neighborhood of Beirut where he works on construction site.
For Hussein, President Barack Obama’s speech last night evokes mixed emotions. He wants ISIS out of his village and out of his country, but his family, his wife and nine children are still there. He says he can’t afford to bring his family to Lebanon—instead he is sending them money from his wages here, “and now the border is closed.”
It’s unclear how quickly these strikes could come—Obama said he “will not hesitate to take action against [ISIS] in Syria, as well as Iraq,” but there was no timeline announced for the action.
The U.S. has been hitting the militants in Iraq since early August, with over 150 strikes against military positions and vehicles in the north, and more recently the west, of the country. Hussein’s home is just 40 kilometers from the Iraqi border. ISIS now straddles this frontier, and it was their sweep through northern Iraq and their march toward Kurdish territory, that pushed the U.S. to finally strike the militants.
But striking in Syria is infinitely more complicated. Iraq is a U.S. ally and the governments have close ties and aligned regional goals, for the most part. These strikes in Iraq came with consent and request from Baghdad. In his speech, Obama touted the success of Iraq in forming a new government, one many hope will help bring discontented Sunni Iraqis back in to the political fold and aid the fight against ISIS, which has support from many Sunnis in the areas it controls.
Just one year ago the U.S. was also talking about hitting Syria—but then the target would have been the military infrastructure of the President Bashar Al-Assad. Obama eventually backed down.
“Really, the US needs to strike both,” said Hussein, referring to ISIS and the Assad regime.
These strikes against ISIS could inadvertently strengthen Assad’s position in the over three-years of battle between opposition rebels, Islamist militants and his army backed by Shi’ite Hezbollah fighters. The Syrian government originally said they wouldn’t permit U.S. strikes in their territory, but they would likely to look away while American drones buzz around looking for ISIS leaders. In fact today Syria seemed to soften that stance, with the country’s deputy foreign minister telling NBC News they had “no reservations whatsoever,” about the strikes, though he said Obama must coordinate with Assad.
“The Syrian regime does not want to pick a fight with the U.S.,” said Kenneth M. Pollack, a specialist in Middle East political-military affairs and a former CIA analyst. “They’ve got their hands full with civil war.”
The strikes will come along with some support to bolster moderate Syrian rebel groups who fight both ISIS and the Syrian regime, but Pollack says this won’t be enough to defeat ISIS in Syria. Saudi Arabia has offered to provide bases to train the fighters.
“The strategy should be building a new Syrian opposition army. One that would be effective, one that would be respected and one that we could actually partner with, providing air support,” said Pollack. “But it means going much further than Barack Obama has wanted to go in Syria.”
The quick advance of ISIS in Iraq, and their garnering of new weapons and popular support among disenfranchised Sunni Iraqis, has placed the U.S. in an increasingly difficult position. Action against the extremists puts Washington on the same side as Damascus and Tehran, historically its regional foes. And despite the desire of many Iraqis and Syrians to rid their country of the Sunni extremists, civilian deaths caused by U.S. strikes could raise resentment against the West.
Ultimately, regional support is going to be critical in combating the terrorist group. Visiting Saudi Arabia today, Secretary of State John Kerry secured the backing of Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council—which includes Saudi Arabia and Qatar—for action against ISIS, with the countries pledging to “do their share” in the fight against the terrorist group. The declaration adding that the countries would join the military campaign against the group “as appropriate.” For Pollack, such backing is key in the fight against ISIS.
“We don’t want the Americans leading a collation of Europeans on a new crusade in the Middle East against Islamists,” he said. “Even if they are vicious, horrible Islamists, the optics are really bad.”