President Barack Obama has not yet authorized the U.S. Central Command to conduct offensive combat operations in Syria, two senior defense officials told McClatchy on Thursday, underscoring the uncertainty that U.S. officials still have over how best to counter the rise of the Islamic State in that country.
Speaking anonymously to discuss sensitive military operations, the officials said that while U.S. Centcom commander Army Gen. Lloyd Austin has been granted the authority to expand the U.S. effort in Iraq to offensive operations, that authority has yet to be extended to Syria. Austin’s authority for Iraq operations was explicit in Obama’s national address Wednesday, the officials said, and official written authority, called an execution order, is expected to reach Austin from the Joint Chiefs of Staff sometime next week, a defense official told McClatchy.
But despite the assertion by White House officials in background briefings with reporters that military action in Syria is a certainty, Pentagon officials said they believe direct military action there is at least weeks away. In his speech Wednesday, Obama said that he would not hesitate to strike in Syria, but he gave no indication of what developments would lead to an actual authorization for a strike, and other U.S. officials have acknowledged that the United States is still determining what to do.
Several major issues remain unresolved regarding Syria, the Defense Department officials said. They include what weapons systems would be employed in strikes on Syria, what targets would be struck, how long an aerial campaign might last, and what impact the strikes would likely have on the Syrian civil war.
The officials said U.S. military planners are also considering the possibility that U.S. aircraft would launch an attack from outside Syrian airspace _ something the Israelis apparently have done on at least two occasions in targeting Syrian missile systems they feared were about to be transferred to the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
Of greatest concern is whether aerial strikes would end up strengthening the government of President Bashar Assad, whose ouster Obama called for in August 2011. The Islamic State currently controls about a third of Syrian territory.
The Pentagon also is weighing whether strikes on the Islamic State might strengthen other armed groups whose goals the United States doesn’t share, such as the al Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front or Kurdish insurgents linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK by its Kurdish initials, both of which have been designated foreign terrorist organizations by the State Department.
With such major questions outstanding, a decisive strike is far from certain. In addition to tactical questions, there are political ones. According to the Interfax News Agency, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said his country would consider strikes on the Islamic State inside Syria without a U.N. Security Council mandate “an act of aggression, a gross violation of international law.” And Syrian government officials said any strikes inside their borders must receive their approval.
Perhaps the biggest challenge confronting Pentagon planners drafting an attack plan inside Syria is their lack of intelligence on possible targets inside Syria. That is particularly true if such strikes are aimed at the Islamic State’s leadership. The United States has only recently begun surveillance flights over Syria; before air assaults can begin, the officials said, planners need to accumulate the kind of intelligence they’ve gleaned in Iraq, where, for nearly three months, the U.S. military has conducted between 50 and 60 surveillance flights per day.
“In Iraq, we have developed tremendous clarity over the past weeks and months,” one of the officials said. “We have gone from a defensive position . . . to taking the fight to ISIL.”
Those more aggressive actions are expected to begin in Iraq once Austin receives the execution orders, after which U.S. operations will shift from protecting U.S. personnel and property and endangered minority groups to rolling back Islamic State militants.
Such action in Syria may still be weeks or months off _ something that was largely lost in the news coverage of Wednesday’s speech as White House officials, briefing reporters anonymously before Obama spoke, stressed their conviction that a strike in Syria was certain. “We will take action on the Syrian side of the border to degrade ISIL,” one official said. “But we’re not going to telegraph our punches by being specific about the time and nature of the target.”
The complexity of the issue also was underscored Thursday by Secretary of State John Kerry, who in an interview from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, told CNN that the United States was not launching a war against the Islamic State.
“What we are doing is engaging in a very significant counterterrorism operation,” Kerry said. “It’s going to go on for some period of time. If somebody wants to think about it as being a war with ISIL, they can do so, but the fact is it’s a major counterterrorism operation that will have many different moving parts.”