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.
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.
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.