National security threats should always trump domestic political concerns, and Barack Obama is deserving of praise for committing to strikes against targets inside Syria which had executed attacks on American interests and were planning more to come. There will, however, be an element in the coverage of last night’s strikes against targets in Syria that will seek to present them as some form of a diplomatic coup on the part of this White House. That assessment may be premature.
Alongside the United States, five Arab nations also participated in the attack on Islamist targets in Syria. Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar (though not participating militarily), Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates joined in strikes against ISIS targets – that’s five more Arab nations than joined the coalition to oust Saddam Hussein from Iraq in 2003, you will be reminded.
That is true, and it is a praiseworthy achievement on the part of the Obama administration. The legitimacy associated with the active participation of some Arab nations in this mission cannot be undervalued.
But the strikes are conspicuously timed. Today, Barack Obama will head to New York City where he will join world leaders for the annual United Nations General Assembly meeting. Last night’s demonstration of the scope of the anti-ISIS coalition will go a long way toward presenting this effort as a legitimate one, but it is easy to get the impression that this was the primary goal of last night’s strikes.
The Pentagon indicated that the al-Qaeda affiliated Khorasan group was planning to execute attacks on Western interests, and disrupting those was of critical importance. Strikes on ISIS targets, however, were not designed to interrupt attack planning. ISIS targets in their stronghold city of Raqqa were struck, but some, like the governor’s palace, were political in nature. Reports from the region indicated that ISIS’s mid-level leadership had already been shifting tactics in Iraq and were blending in with civilian populations to frustrate coalition planners. The same tactics are likely to be adopted by ISIS in Syria, and the campaign to dislodge them will grow more difficult in the coming weeks. Moreover, without capable ground forces yet in place to follow up on airstrikes by taking and holding ISIS territory, the momentum gained from last night’s sorties is likely to be lost in the coming days.
If, however, the strikes in Syria were designed to send a political message of unity to the world ahead of the UNGA, U.S. allies and adversaries both may confound that message.
America’s antagonists in capitals like Tehran and Moscow have charged that strikes inside Syria are illegal. “Any such action can be carried out only in accordance with international law,” read a statement issued by Russia’s foreign ministry. “That implies not a formal, one-sided ‘notification’ of airstrikes but the presence of explicit consent from the government of Syria or the approval of a corresponding U.N. Security Council decision.”
“Attempts to achieve one’s own geopolitical goals in violation of the sovereignty of countries in the region only exacerbate tensions and further destabilise the situation,” the statement continued.
That last bit is rich, particularly in light of Russia’s own unilateral military actions in Ukraine – even those it openly acknowledges like the invasion and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. Iran’s objections are equally amusing considering their client terrorist group Hezbollah has been actively engaged in offensives against Sunni Islamist forces in Syria, including ISIS, for weeks.
Slightly more serious are the objections of France, America’s only coalition partner expecting airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq.
“We’re very concerned with the aspects of international law,” French President Francois Hollande said in a press conference last week. “We’ve been called in by the Iraqis; we’re not called on in Syria.”
He is not entirely wrong. The United Nations has not sanctioned this military campaign in Syria, the Assad government has not requested support, and Barack Obama has not even received the backing of Congress for these attacks. Legal authority for this attack on targets in Syria simply does not exist; the administration is justifying these strikes merely on subjectively defined threats to international security.
There is even less controlling legally authority legitimizing these strikes than existed ahead of the Iraq War. The objections to U.S. military action in the Middle East by nations like Iran, Russia, and France may be dismissed in the American press today, but they were held in the highest regard in 2003. The international news media will be even less inclined to present these strikes in Syria as more legitimate than the attack on Hussein’s Iraq.
Arab nations participating in military strikes in Syria is a welcome development, but that may not be perceived as the unalloyed diplomatic victory that the White House had hoped.