General Dempsey was certainly correct when he observed that you cannot destroy ISIS by going after it on one side of the border alone. He would also be the first to acknowledge that you cannot defeat it through the air without a sustained ground campaign to follow. This points to a fundamental problem: If we are to displace ISIS from territory in Syria by bombing it, who will occupy the ground? Will it be Jabbat al Nusra, the official Al Qaeda franchise in Syria? Bashar al-Assad’s forces, relieving pressure on his troops so that he can continue to attack the more moderate opposition? Hezbollah?
As long as Assad is in charge in Syria, the awful carnage will continue and ISIS will have a safe haven from which to draw in new recruits as fast as we could kill them.
Instead of bombing Syria, we should leverage our military support—much like in Iraq—to encourage an end to the regime. Already there is growing dissatisfaction among Assad’s own Alawite clan at the course of the grinding civil war, his military leadership and the Faustian bargain he made by letting ISIS flourish while concentrating his firepower on the moderates. Iran, Assad’s main backer, has its own reasons to be alarmed at the formation of a radical Sunni state that views Shia Islam as apostasy. The time may be right to try to peel away the Assad regime’s core supporters, maintaining the cohesion of the military behind a national unity government representing all Syrians.