Obama Authorized Surveillance Flights Because We Have No Idea What’s Going on Inside Syria

How It Works
Aug. 26 2014 2:04 PM

We Have No Idea What’s Going on Inside Syria

Nic6117656
An Iraqi solider patrols the Iraq-Syria border on July 20, 2012.

Photo by Azhar Shallal/AFP/GettyImages

The AP reports today that President Obama has authorized surveillance flights over Syria, a move that could be the first sign of the U.S. expanding its operations against ISIS to the other side of the porous Syria-Iraq border. It makes sense that such a mission would begin with an extensive intelligence-gathering effort. That’s because, compared with other areas of the world, the U.S. military knows very little about what’s happening in Syria.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

Why is the U.S. making this move now? At first glance this surveillance would appear to be exactly the sort of “mission creep” the president said he was intent on avoiding in authorizing limited airstrikes against the militant group earlier this month. But the killing of U.S. journalist James Foley, combined with recent warnings from military leaders that there’s no way to effectively roll back ISIS without addressing its base of operations in Syria, may have changed the White House’s thinking.

Advertisement

It’s logical that a campaign against ISIS would involve strikes on the country where it reportedly controls about one-third of the territory. But Syria is very different from other countries where the U.S. has launched strikes against terrorist groups. Before the recent airborne intervention in Iraq, in contrast, the U.S. had military advisers in place for weeks, not to mention years of experience fighting there. We have nothing of the sort in Syria.

In countries like Pakistan and Yemen, the U.S. operates drones with the tacit cooperation of national governments, and even there, it’s not as if the intelligence is always flawless

In Syria, the CIA has been working for some time to arm rebel groups, but its assets on the ground are likely minimal. It’s also dealing with a hostile government committed to defending the country’s airspace. As the Washington Post reports:

[S]enior U.S. intelligence and military officials—speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive operations—said American spy agencies have not yet assembled the capabilities that would be needed to target Islamic State leaders and provide reliable-enough intelligence to sustain a campaign of strikes …
A senior U.S. intelligence official said that “it would probably take some number of months to really build up the necessary intelligence architecture” to expand the U.S. air campaign underway in Iraq against Islamic State positions in Syria. “This is not going to end anytime soon.”

In other words, we may be in for quite a long and deepening engagement in Syria’s civil war. And Bashar al-Assad’s government already seems to be angling for opportunities to turn this to its advantage. 

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

TODAY IN SLATE

History

The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Transparent Is the Fall’s Only Great New Show

The XX Factor

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada

Now, journalists can't even say her name.

Doublex

Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

  News & Politics
Damned Spot
Sept. 30 2014 9:00 AM Now Stare. Don’t Stop. The perfect political wife’s loving gaze in campaign ads.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 29 2014 7:01 PM We May Never Know If Larry Ellison Flew a Fighter Jet Under the Golden Gate Bridge
  Life
Atlas Obscura
Sept. 30 2014 10:10 AM A Lovable Murderer and Heroic Villain: The Story of Australia's Most Iconic Outlaw
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 29 2014 8:45 AM Slate Isn’t Too Liberal. But… What readers said about the magazine’s bias and balance.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 29 2014 9:06 PM Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Looks Like a Comic Masterpiece
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:36 AM Almost Humane What sci-fi can teach us about our treatment of prisoners of war.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath The Methane Lakes of Titan?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.