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How do airstrikes on Islamic State complicate the war in Syria? – Part 3

September 23, 2014 at 9:31 PM EDT
Judy Woodruff gets analysis of how the airstrikes will complicate an already complicated war in Syria from Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma and retired Col. Derek Harvey of the University of South Florida.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And for some analysis on the strikes, more analysis, and how they affect an already complicated civil war in Syria with multiple sides, I’m joined by retired Colonel Derek Harvey. He’s a former intelligence officer and special adviser to the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, General David Petraeus. He’s now director for the Global Initiative on Civil Society and Conflict at the University of South Florida.

Joshua Landis, he’s director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma. And Andrew Tabler, he’s a senior fellow at the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

We welcome you all back to the program.

Colonel Harvey, to you first. How do you size up this military operation last night?

COL. DEREK HARVEY, Former Army Intelligence Officer: I think it’s an important event, but it’s just the beginning of a very long journey.

The president has laid out a strategy that’s going to take a long time to pull the pieces together, the financial aspects, going after foreign fighter flow, delegitimizing the Islamic State. Most importantly from last night, we had Sunni Arab and Shia Arab buy-in in this attack. And the attack on the Khorasan group I think was the most important element last night.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so you’re saying the U.S., with this coalition, five countries, went after the right targets?

COL. DEREK HARVEY: I think, for the initial stages it was the right target. It’s going to be a long campaign, the Khorasan group, a legitimate, serious threat, and then going after the Islamic State, even though they have had plenty of time to disperse and prepare for this, because they knew this strike was coming.

So it’s not a decisive strike that we made last night against them, but it’s the first step of a long journey. And we have to understand that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Andrew Tabler here with me in Washington, first step of a long journey, is that how you see it?

ANDREW TABLER, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy: Absolutely. I think the airstrikes are only one element of the campaign to really not only contain ISIS, but to finally eliminate it inside of Syria.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I want to go quickly to you, Joshua Landis.

Is this — for the United States to have these five countries in the region on board, what does this look like to you as the beginning of a campaign?

JOSHUA LANDIS, University of Oklahoma: Well, it’s great to have five monarchies as your wingman on this, all Sunni Arab. This is the big challenge for the United States is to convince Sunni Arabs that we’re not attacking them and we’re not against Sunni Islam.

Many people, many Sunnis suspect we are. We’re trying to — that we have a war against Islam, because we threw the Sunnis out of power in Iraq and catapulted the Shiites into power. And they have been persecuting the Sunnis ever since. We said we were going to bring Sunni rebels to a victory in Syria, or we implied it when we said Assad had to step aside, and we did nothing.

The country has crashed into horrible civil war. The U.N. just said 90 percent of Syrians are living in poverty today. So, many Sunnis believe that America is secretly working with Iran and Shiites to destroy Sunni Islam. Now, from an American perspective, this seems absurd, but this is the sort of propaganda that ISIS is going to try to use, al-Qaida is going to try the use.

And we have to convince the Arab world that we’re going to do something good for Sunnis, and that we’re not just bombing Arabs again. And that’s why we needed the five monarchs there with us in this thing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Andrew Tabler, the convincing goes on. This was — it was one thing to get these five countries on board last night, but what I’m hearing from all of you is that that is an effort that will continue.


And there are two parts to this. One is keeping the rulers of the monarchies on side, and the other Arab countries as well as Turkey that might jump on board. And there was a serious damage to American credibility in what was known as the non-strike incident last year, when President Assad went beyond American red lines.

The second selling is to the Sunni populations, the majorities inside of Syria, and there with the opposition in particular that American credibility has been extremely low. And hopefully with these strikes, we can go on path towards restoring that credibility with a pledge to arm moderate rebels in Syria.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about the campaign itself?

And I’m coming back to you for the moment, Joshua Landis. The campaign — the idea that airstrikes alone, which is what President Obama has been saying, no U.S. boots on the ground, that we can — that the U.S. can degrade ISIS, and one assumes he’s — that’s the same view when it comes to the Khorasan group?


Well, you know, Andrew is right. The United States needs to partner with somebody, because you can bomb ISIS, but you need an army on the ground that is pro-American, that’s going to bring better government to this region, that can move in and take these towns away from ISIS as they’re bombed.

And that puts America in a very complicated position, because the United States has not really wanted the rebels to win a military victory in Syria. And, today, the rebels are saying, arm us, arm us, we will take on IS, but Assad is our real target.

And America has to figure out how to get the rebels on board, to attack ISIS, without destroying Damascus, Latakia, and, yes, the many cities where Syrians still live in their apartments and drive cars and get some benefits from the state. If that should happen, there will be a big outflow of refugees again from Syria, and this could flood out into the neighborhood, which is just what America doesn’t want.

And so the dangers are many for Obama. And he’s going to go slowly and see how he can develop the rebel side of this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And picking up on that, Colonel Derek Harvey, what about the — once airstrikes do as much as they can do, what does — who does the U.S. turn to, to fill those spaces that ISIS now occupies?

COL. DEREK HARVEY: Well, I think that’s an important element, and it speaks to the issue that we don’t have a partner in Syria. And the Free Syrian Army and the training program is going to take a long time.

But there are some significant and important developments, I think, that we could take advantage of. In the Euphrates River Valley, there are a number of Sunni Arab tribes that are willing to take up arms and to fight the Islamic State, and they’re not aligned with the Damascus government either. And so we could take advantage of that and use Jordan and Saudi Arabia and our Iraqi partners to work with those Shammari tribes in developing a resistance almost like an awakening movement.

The same dynamics apply to the northeast. And if you did that with Kurdish and Sunni Arabs in the northeast that are willing the fight and the Free Syrian Army in the far west, then you have the makings of a three-pronged effort to put pressure on the Islamic State. It would be an awakening-type movement, and it would be a tribal militia-type movement.

And then you could move towards something like a no-fly free zone that might begin to give you a political way forward in Syria.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Andrew Tabler, but that sounds like a significant balancing act for the United States to be juggling this many different players and this many different interests.

ANDREW TABLER: Absolutely.

But after the initial strikes, right, it has to be — and that’s that key question: Who goes in and fills up that vacuum?  And so there it is, what Sunni powers do we have to move into those areas?  The Free Syrian Army is primarily in the north and in the south. It’s not primarily in the eastern part of the country.

Tribes are naturally in that area. So it might not be actually a force going into the area, but they might actually spring up. They could be armed. The other player is, it could be that the Assad regime tries to lash out from its bases in Palmyra in the center of the country, but their capacity has been somewhat limited.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean lash out at ISIS?

ANDREW TABLER: Correct, lash out at areas that were formerly controlled by ISIS, in the event that they’re decimated following an American air campaign.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I want to come back to you, Joshua Landis, on this Khorasan group, again, that we have not heard much about, although the attorney general was out saying today that the administration’s known about them for a couple of years, known what they were up to. It was just when this threat became imminent or immediate that they decided to act.

How much of a complicating factor is it or not?

JOSHUA LANDIS: Well, you know, America’s put down marker here, because we could have just gone after ISIS.

There are, according to the CIA, about 1,500 armed militias in Syria amongst the Sunni rebels. And they span across a long spectrum, too, the American friendly so-called moderates at one end, to Islamist groups in the center, getting more jihadist, up to al-Qaida on the right.

We — some of the al-Qaida groups have alliances with our pro-American groups. So we’re putting down a marker and letting the rebels know, anybody who messes with the jihadists and the groups that we have designated as terrorists are not going to be able to cooperate with the United States.

So that’s an important lesson to send, but obviously they’re pitching this as al-Qaida in Syria organizing to hit America and that we are — this is self-defense. America is defending its homeland by taking out these foreign terrorists. And I think that that speaks to the legitimacy question in this entire thing of what are we doing in Syria and are we defending America?

And this sort of underlines, yes, we’re defending America.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, as we heard at the Pentagon today, this is only the beginning, and this is a beginning of our analysis. And we thank all three of you for joining us, Colonel Derek Harvey, Andrew Tabler and Joshua Landis.

COL. DEREK HARVEY: Thank you, Judy.