Skip to main content

What can the United States do against ISIS in Syria -- and could it work?

By Greg Botelho, CNN
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 2054 GMT (0454 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Obama: U.S. has no military strategy yet on what to do against ISIS in Syria
  • There's been no hint of ground forces, but commandos did do a rescue mission
  • Airstrikes are a possibility; a congressman says it's critical U.S. work with locals
  • "There is no such thing as a no-risk strategy," Rep. Adam Smith adds

Editor's note: Read a version of this story in Arabic.

(CNN) -- If the United States is serious about thoroughly defeating ISIS, it must -- somehow, some way -- go through Syria.

But how? And in what way?

Those are the big questions now, as President Barack Obama weighs what to do inside the war-ravaged nation where ISIS leaders are based and where the Islamist terror group rose to prominence.

Critics hammer Obama over ISIS threat

Obama ceded Thursday that "we don't have a strategy yet" for what to do about ISIS inside Syria, with a senior administration official adding that a decision is "a week or so" away.

Analysis: Obama's strategy for ISIS
What led another American to ISIS?

There are certainly options, but none is clear-cut.

"There is no such thing as a no-risk strategy," said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Washington. "It's a matter of taking the right risk and balancing that risk to make the right choice."

Here's a look at some possibilities, including why and how they could and could not work:

1) Ground forces

In other words, go all in.

When terrorists attacked on September 11, 2001, the United States showed its willingness to use its full military might when it attacked Afghanistan -- a campaign that dragged on for years and killed more than 2,300 American troops.

That steep cost, both human and financial, is the big reason this is very, very unlikely to happen again in Syria.

No U.S. officials have suggested troops on the ground. The fact none were sent to fight in Iraq -- a country where the U.S. has deeper ties and a government it works with -- is further indication there will be no U.S. ground invasion of Syria anytime soon.

There could be smaller-scale, targeted operations, though. After all, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby told CNN that, this summer, elite U.S. commandos from units like Delta Force and Navy SEAL Team 6 went into Syria and tried to rescue American journalist James Foley and others held by Islamic militants.

They didn't find hostages, but who's to say U.S. Special Operations Forces couldn't conduct more such missions to save others or for some other purpose? Then there's the possibility American troops could go into Syria to help with the targeting of U.S. airstrikes.

Of course, all bets are off if ISIS pulls an al Qaeda and strikes inside the United States.

That hasn't happened yet, though some experts believe that such an attack from ISIS -- which, upon beheading Foley, warned other U.S. citizens could be next -- might be a matter of time.

2) Airstrikes

Obama gave the go-ahead to pound ISIS forces in Iraq from the air. Why not do the same in Syria, a country the President himself ceded Thursday has become a "safe haven" for the terror group?

Except it's not that simple.

It starts with the fact that Syria is a mess. Three years of civil war have torn apart the country, spurring the emergence of rebel groups fighting to oust President Bashar al-Assad and sometimes against each other. About the only thing al-Assad and rebel groups have in common is that ISIS is their enemy.

Obama is pushing to get al-Assad too, but they're on the same side when it comes to ISIS. Yet U.S. officials insist this shared cause doesn't mean they'll coordinate any military action with al-Assad's government, even if Syrian officials are demanding it.

It's one thing to anger Syria even more. It's another thing to anger its allies Iran and Russia. Russia, which is already at odds with the West over Ukraine, could block any U.N. Security Council effort to give a seal of approval to international strikes.

All of this brings many questions: Does the United States really want to conduct a military campaign in a country without a government that is stable and that it trusts? Can it count on opposition factions it supports to provide any long-term stability? And does it know that airstrikes will wipe out ISIS in Syria rather than stalling the group?

Lawmaker: ISIS strategy has to be smart
Does Obama have a strategy for ISIS?
Can ISIS govern?

Absent a fortune-teller, it's hard to tell how any military action would turn out.

Still, if Obama decides that's the way to go now, White House spokesman Josh Earnest stressed, more needs to be done politically, diplomatically and economically long-term to keep ISIS down.

"Any sort of strategy that's predicated only on the use of American military force will not be an enduring solution," he said.

3) Support factions in Syria to fight ISIS

The Obama administration frequently touts its support for "moderate opposition" battling both al-Assad's forces and ISIS. Yet, for all its talk, it hasn't directly armed such forces.

The ideal is, if you arm groups like the Free Syrian Army, they can help take out ISIS.

That may not be realistic, considering ISIS with the Syrian government may be the most powerful forces now in the nation. Then there's the real possibility that if moderate forces lose, American weaponry may end up in the hands of ISIS, as has happened in Iraq.

Still, it helps to have someone local you trust to provide on-the-ground intelligence for airstrikes or compliment those strikes with a ground assault.

Smith, the Democrats' ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee, is among those who believes "U.S. military might alone is not going to contain ISIS. We are going to need partners locally."

"We have to strengthen them, not so much so they can win," Smith said of the Free Syria movement, "but so that they can survive and maintain some territory to give us a partner to work with."

4) Cut off ISIS's funding

If you can't pound ISIS into submission militarily, the reasoning goes, you can hit it where it hurts: the wallet.

The thinking goes that, in order to wage war, you need weapons, vehicles, ammunition. In order to govern a country, you need access to food, water and electricity. And usually to address these needs, a group needs money.

Implementing sanctions and freezing bank accounts are often the first, least controversial steps to go after a terrorist group. And they can have an impact, but they also have their limits.

For one, one shouldn't think such efforts will be effective overnight. They take time to coordinate, and it takes time to drain militants' piggy banks. Plus, it's not like there's a readily available list of ISIS donors to go after.

And the fact is, ISIS isn't like many other terror groups. Unlike others like al Qaeda, it's chief goal is as practical as it is ideological: to take over and govern territory.

ISIS vs. Al Qaeda: How they're different
ISIS recruiting fighters from Minnesota?
Obama: Need regional anti-ISIS coalition

Already, ISIS has proven adept at seizing weaponry. It's also paid attention to things like food stocks, electricity, sewage, medical care and more, as a recent Foreign Policy article noted.

"They are in this for the long haul," Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Michigan, said. "They are trying to structure themselves in a way that they can hold and expand their holdings."

Whether its government is effective or not, one thing ISIS has proven is its zealousness for the cause and willingness to sacrifice civilians who haven't believed in it from the beginning.

5) Build a true international coalition

One big thing the United States has going for it: Practically no one likes ISIS.

Sure, there are groups and individuals backing the formation of an Islamic State -- which is what ISIS calls itself now that it controls a vast swath of Syria and Iraq -- governed by sharia law. Some from oil-rich Muslim states in the Middle East may bankroll the group; others fight, with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder this summer estimating that there are 7,000 such foreigners with militant groups in Syria.

"There are clearly two camps in the world today: those who believe that sovereignty and supremacy in the world belongs to God, they are the Islamic State, (and) those who believe sovereignty belongs to man," said British firebrand preacher Anjem Choudhary, who sides with the Islamic State.

Yet ISIS has far, far more detractors than supporters. It has a bloody track record of beheadings, crucifixions, stonings, not to mention the widespread slaughtering of minorities, Christians and Muslims who don't prescribe to its strict interpretation of Islam.

Such actions -- like Foley's execution -- spurred widespread condemnation. Some have incentive to go beyond condemnation and act, militarily, against ISIS.

Start with nations that border Syria, like Jordan and Turkey. As its self-ordained caliphate shows, ISIS has shown that it doesn't abide by national borders. What's to stop it from advancing into another country, especially if it gets bigger, stronger and richer? That possibility might spur other countries, besides the United States, to step in sooner rather than later.

Even if they don't neighbor Iraq or Syria, nations with significant populations of Sunnis -- which is the sect of most Muslims worldwide, including in Middle Eastern nations like Saudi Arabia and Egypt-- may have reason to worry. Like with al Qaeda previously, disaffected young Muslims anywhere-- even in the West -- could join ISIS, then perhaps deciding to act out in their homelands.

"It's certainly not in the interest of governments in that neighborhood to have (ISIS) wreaking havoc or perpetrating terrible acts of violence," said Earnest, the White House spokesman.

These nations could band together. The United States could be part of this coalition, perhaps letting others take an equal or greater role in military operations.

The idea of Washington leading "from behind" has precedent: look at Libya. This international coalition got what it wanted with the downfall of dictator Moammar Gadhafi. But years later, Libya is not a model of anything good: beset by warring militias and without an effective central government.

Rogers, the House Intelligence committee chairman, thinks the Obama administration has had "no real strategy" on ISIS so far -- especially a strategy that addresses the group's base in Syria -- even though the group's been growing stronger for years.

"We're so far along into this," the Republican said of ISIS's rise. "It's not like this happened just last week."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
ISIS
December 2, 2014 -- Updated 0130 GMT (0930 HKT)
The FBI warns U.S military that ISIS are looking for individuals who may be interested in carrying out attacks on home soil.
December 1, 2014 -- Updated 1607 GMT (0007 HKT)
Iraq's Prime Minister says there is evidence of 50,000 soldiers being paid while inactive.
December 1, 2014 -- Updated 2317 GMT (0717 HKT)
Pentagon insider Ashton Carter is expected to be President Barack Obama's nominee for Defense Secretary.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 2332 GMT (0732 HKT)
Wolf Blitzer talks to Rep. Ed Royce about the White House's new ISIS strategy that involves removing Bashar al-Assad.
November 13, 2014 -- Updated 1136 GMT (1936 HKT)
Just two weeks ago, Yasir was regularly strapped into an explosive vest and handed a pistol, an AK-47 and a radio to stand guard at an ISIS base in the eastern Syrian city of Deir Ezzor.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 2249 GMT (0649 HKT)
How did three U.S. teenagers become radicalized? CNN's Pamela Brown reports.
November 5, 2014 -- Updated 0226 GMT (1026 HKT)
Reza Aslan examines the appeal of ISIS and why the group is able to successfully attract so many recruits.
November 5, 2014 -- Updated 0210 GMT (1010 HKT)
Former U.S. Commander Lt. General Mark Hertling (Ret.) says it is tough for him to watch what is unfolding in Iraq.
November 3, 2014 -- Updated 1418 GMT (2218 HKT)
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh takes a look at how ISIS is using media to desensitize children.
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 2333 GMT (0733 HKT)
A new propaganda video from ISIS features a Canadian ISIS member who died in combat.
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 1443 GMT (2243 HKT)
Captured ISIS fighters tell CNN's Ivan Watson of the group's brutality.
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 0133 GMT (0933 HKT)
British hostage John Cantlie appears from the battle city of Kobani.
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 1443 GMT (2243 HKT)
A captured fighter tells CNN's Ivan Watson: "They gave us drugs... that made you go to battle."
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1720 GMT (0120 HKT)
As a U.S. soldier, Jordan Matson never saw combat, yet now he's in Syria, fighting for the Kurdish militia. "All my life, I've wanted to be a soldier," he tells CNN's Ivan Watson.
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 1331 GMT (2131 HKT)
The New York Times reports that James Foley and other ISIS captives were tortured and starved ahead of their beheadings.
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 0900 GMT (1700 HKT)
Is ISIS propaganda successful in getting 'lone wolf' terrorists to strike in western countries?
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 0448 GMT (1248 HKT)
Ivan Watson explains why the United States' support of a Kurdish fighting group may cause friction with a NATO ally.
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1357 GMT (2157 HKT)
Another casualty of ISIS' ruthless advance: Iraq's pricelss cultural heritage.
Explore CNN's interactive that explains ISIS' roots, what it controls, and where its support comes from.
ADVERTISEMENT