The US Fight Against ISIS: An Exercise in Futility?

Fred Hof: US Policy Needs a Ground Game, and Here Are Two Ways to Build It

The US military has escalated air strikes against the Islamist militant ISIS fighters who have been closing in on the Syrian town of Kobani and the nearby Turkish border, in large part because the Syrian civil war is now threatening order in Turkey, a critical NATO ally.

But three weeks of US airstrikes on ISIS in Syria has not turned back the group’s advance, and even an intense bombing campaign is not going to defeat ISIS, according to the Atlantic Council’s Fred Hof, a former State Department advisor to President Obama on Syria. Halting ISIS will require a capable force on the ground as well, Hof told CBS News Tuesday. “Without a ground component … this is going to be an exercise in futility,” he said.

Hof has suggested two potential ways to get that ground force into the fight. The US should help to build up a credible military force among moderate, nationalist elements of the opposition to the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad, he’s argued.  And it should test Turkey’s willingness to intervene across the Syria-Turkey border, where ISIS is attacking the ethnic Kurdish center of Kobani.

Hof argues that the US administration overstates the obstacles and underestimates the importance, of building a Syrian nationalist opposition that can fight. US “rhetoric about supporting beleaguered Syrian nationalists”—and “even elevating them to the role of putative coalition ground combat component in Syria—is accompanied by nothing of substance,” Hof wrote October 10.  The US approach has been to pretend that “there is no one [among Syrians] on the ground who can help, and kick the train-and-equip can down the road as far as possible.”

Turkey’s government is under pressure from its Kurdish minority to intervene at Kobani to save the Kurds there. Still, the Turkish option is not a sure bet, Hof says. “Even if we give President Erdogan every assurance” he is seeking, such as a US destruction or forced grounding of Assad’s air force, “we are not sure that he will pull the trigger” and send Turkish troops into Syria, he said today in an interview. But the US should test Erdogan’s willingness by taking steps it should be taking anyway, he said. US rhetoric has insisted that Assad’s rule must end, but it has failed even to take the relatively simple step of grounding its air forces, which have conducted months of strikes, notably with its crude “barrel bombs,” that have caused high civilian casualties.

“Ankara is reportedly demanding that Washington put some muscle behind its Assad-should-step-aside policy in Syria by grounding the regime air force and supporting Turkey’s creation of a protected zone in Syria from which Syrian nationalist forces could fight both ISIS and the regime,” Hof wrote October 9. “Turkey is not wrong to demand that, at long last, Washington act on its perception that the Assad regime’s violent sectarian response to political protest” is what has led to the Syrian state collapse and the rise of ISIS.

James Rupert is an editor at the Atlantic Council.

Related Experts: Frederic C. Hof

Image: The Atlantic Council’s Fred Hof discusses the US air strikes against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, telling CBS News that “without a ground component … this is going to be an exercise in futility.” (CBS News/