The White House remains confident that President Barack Obama does not need to seek Congressional authorization in order to execute strikes inside Syria targeting Islamic State terrorists. This position seems incongruous with the president’s statements in a prime time address exactly one year ago in which he rallied the nation to support strikes Bashar al-Assad’s forces inside Syria, pending the approval of Congress.
The president’s insistence that the Constitution provides him with the authority to execute strikes inside Syria does not, however, cover another aspect of what is expected to be Obama’s comprehensive strategy to combat ISIS. According to reports, the president will seek Congressional approval to equip and train Syrian rebel forces who will serve as the “boots on the ground.”
Fox News reported that Obama is expected on Wednesday night to call for an expanded effort aimed at arming moderate Syrian opposition forces.
A White House aide told Fox News the president has already asked congressional leaders, with whom he met late Tuesday, to quickly pass a bill giving him the power to ramp up support to Syrian rebels. The aide said the president is seeking more aid for the rebels so they could be the ground troops in place to support potential U.S. airstrikes. The Obama administration already is pursuing a similar strategy in Iraq, where U.S. airstrikes are backed by Iraqi security forces on the ground — as opposed to U.S. ground troops.
“Obama could order airstrikes on an expanded list of targets within Iraq and has been considering strikes in Syria as well, on condition that moderate rebels there be in a position to hold territory cleared of Islamic State fighters by the strikes,” Reuters revealed.
That’s a big “if” at the moment. The Free Syrian Army, the ostensibly secular opposition militia which has been lobbying Western governments for their support for years, is relatively isolated in the battle-scarred city of Aleppo. Unconfirmed reports are, however, surfacing which indicate that the FSA is mounting an offensive against Assad’s forces ahead of Obama’s speech, perhaps to project the appearance of capability and instill confidence in Western leaders that they can meet Obama’s condition of being able to take and hold territory.
But the multi-front war in Syria is even more complicated. ISIS has made significant gains in recent weeks in its effort to oust Assad’s forces from the portions of Syria it now controls.
“In a span of weeks, the Islamic State has overrun military bases in Syria’s east,” a report in The Wall Street Journal read. “In the west, the ¬regime faces a coalition of rebels that threatens the heartland of Assad’s Alawite minority and could alter the course of Syria’s multi-sided civil war.”
The mission to combat ISIS now seems to have taken precedence over the West’s 2013 goal of removing Assad from power:
United Nations and Western officials hope to push tentative truce negotiations now under way between the regime and rebels. The idea is to persuade both sides—as well as their regional backers, Iran for the regime; Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey for the rebels—that no one can win the war, these officials said during interviews in Syria and Lebanon.
In August of 2011, Obama said in a statement that “The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way.”
“For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside,” the statement continued.
It is painfully clear that the president’s strategy in Syria is a moving target guided not by doctrine but by rushed, ad hoc responses to developments. Surely, America hopes the president will adopt a more grounded approach to American policy in Syria in his speech tonight – one guided by America’s lasting interests in the region and not by fluid domestic politics.