President Barack Obama has taken the next step in the war against the Islamic State, ordering airstrikes inside Syria for the first time. The Pentagon says they were “very successful,” targeting commanders in their de facto capital of Raqqa, as well as weapons supplies and training compounds.
But to achieve the stated goal of destroying this terrorist group, the bombing is only the start of what could be a very long campaign – and the path forward is fraught with uncertainty and risk.
Reports from the ground suggest that Islamic State leaders already are moving into civilian areas where the U.S. is unlikely to drop bombs and launch missiles. Obama repeatedly has ruled out sending American ground troops, counting instead on arming “moderate” Syrian rebels to do the fighting for us.
If that doesn’t succeed, what then? The American public is rightly wary of another Middle East war. The president has bipartisan support in Congress, but what if things go south?
For now, though, there are reasons to be encouraged. Several Arab nations took part – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Bahrain and Qatar. Symbolically, if not militarily, this unprecedented coalition is crucial. These are Sunni regimes, which are publicly standing up against a Sunni extremist group.
“The strength of this coalition makes it clear to the world that this is not America’s fight alone,” Obama said at the White House on Tuesday before leaving for the United Nations, where he will try to rally more world support.
He should spend some quality time with leaders of Turkey, a NATO ally that notably did not join Arab nations in signing a declaration of support for the campaign against the Islamic State. Behind the scenes, if not publicly, the Obama administration must exert more pressure on Turkey to do its part.
Turkey could do much more to secure its borders with Iraq and Syria, where the Islamic State moves oil and fighters. It could help Western governments track extremists from North America and Europe, who represent a looming threat of returning to their home countries to launch attacks. It could allow U.S. planes stationed at Incirlik Air Base to be used in the attacks.
It’s important to note that the second set of airstrikes, conducted by U.S. forces alone, had a different mission – to destroy safe havens of an al-Qaida offshoot that U.S. officials had warned was an immediate threat to the homeland.
The target was the Khorasan group, which officials said is plotting attacks in the West, in part to maintain credibility and stop defections to the Islamic State.
Let that sink in for a minute.
America is facing extremist groups that want to kill more innocent people so they can stay relevant and recruit more adherents. That’s the enemy the president is seeking to defeat – and why this military action is justified. We can only hope that airstrikes will be enough.