Pictured above is an armed MQ-9 Reaper drone. Creatively and effectively utilized in Syria, drones may help put US policy back on track.
According to a February 11, 2014 Washington Post article entitled “Islamist Group in Syria Prompts US Debate,” ties between Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State and Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) a group which for two years has operated as an Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, has been broken. It was the outcome of a longstanding rift between the central leader of Al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the upper ranks of ISIS. The “break-up” has fueled a debate within the administration of US President Barack Obama over whether the president would ever be able to use lethal force, drone strikes in particular, against ISIS and other Islamic militant groups in Syria, since those groups are no longer associated with Al-Qaeda. ISIS, almost as much as the Assad regime, has impeded US policy in Syria. That policy has been to support the Free Syrian Army (FSA) with arms and equipment in its efforts against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with the hope that he could be pressured to the negotiating table by FSA advances and agree to step down under a settlement. However, the FSA has not been very successful and ISIS has regularly attacked its units while supposedly having the same goal of bringing down the Assad regime. Consequently, FSA efforts have been split been fighting the forces and allies of the Assad regime and ISIS. What has made ISIS and other rogue Islamic militant groups even more troubling for the US is the assessment by its intelligence community that such groups in Syria now pose a credible threat to the US homeland. There has been no public indication that the internal discussion on Syria has resulted in a decision by the White House to take action. However, the use of military force has not been ruled out either, and the possible use of drones has clearly been voiced. That in itself is an important development.
Recently, General James Jones, a former National Security Adviser in the Obama administration, discussed what he referred to as the administration’s “delinqency” on Syria. Although the administrtion has been arming and training the FSA, most notable about its approach has been: its decision to back away from red-lines on chemical weapons use; its dogmatic position on Assad’s removal which has only served to harden the positions of parties to the conflict; its struggle to organize talks in Geneva that have proven less than promising; and, currently its choice to engross itself in a time consuming policy debate on Syria. Yet, now that the security of the US homeland may be tied to events in that country, perhaps it will be determined that firm steps are required. Absent any desire or will to use ground forces to quell the threat posed by the militant groups to the US, or the FSA, a low-risk, highly effective, means to shape the situation could very well be the use of drones. Integrated with US efforts already underway, drones, creatively and effectively applied, may help put the US policy on Syria back on track. They may also allow for the effective implementation of US Counterterrorism policy. Drones strikes should become part of the US effort in Syria.
Debate and Delay: A Decision is Needed Now
To be explicit, rogue Islamic militant groups such as ISIS have carried the day so far in Syria. In addition to attacks made on the FSA, ISIS and other rogue Islamic militant groups have taken over towns and villages in the rather large segments of Syria that they control and have imposed a strict form of sharia law on their inhabitants. Infractions of that law have resulted in the merciless abuses and the gruesome murders of Syrian citizens. These acts have been well documented by the US, the EU, Russia, the UN, NATO, nongovernmental organizations, humanitarian organizations, and especially the news media. It was such horrific acts by ISIS that led Al-Qaida’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to renounce the activities of ISIS as being too extreme to tolerate. With every passing day, the mistreatment and killing intensifies. Islamic militants have poured into Syria at a rate so high that FSA forces lack the capability to contend with them alone. The US estimates that of the 26,000 “extremists” in Syria, over 7,000 are foreign fighters from 50 different countries. ISIS and other rogue Islamic militant groups, comfortable and confident in Syria, have now begun to consider the possibility of striking in the US. At a US Senate Intelligence Committee hearing held on January 29, 2014, Committee Chairman, Senator Dianne Feinstein, stated: “Because large swaths of the country . . . of Syria are beyond the regime’s control or that of the moderate opposition, this leads to the major concern of the establishment of a safe haven and the real prospect that Syria could become a launching point or way station for terrorists seeking to attack the United States or other nations. Not only are fighters being drawn to Syria, but so are technologies and techniques that pose particular problems to our defenses.” Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center testified the same day to Senator Feinstein’s committee that “a permissive environment, extremist groups like al-Nusra and the number of foreign fighters combine to make Syria a place that we are very concerned about—in particular, the potential for terrorist attacks emanating from Syria to the West.” The Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, in his testimony that day explained succinctly, “What’s going on in there [Syria], and the attraction of these foreign fighters is very, very, worrisome.” Given such grim assessments from senior US officials, a decision to take action in Syria would seem inevitable.
However, the Obama administration seems to be stuck on the legalities of such action. The Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) gives the US president freedom to attack groups associated with the Al-Qaeda and the Taliban organizations. Obama, himself, is apparently apprehensive about using the AUMF to take military action in Syria since it would mean citing the same constitutional authority that, while campaigning for the presidency, he accused his predecessor President George W. Bush of over-using. Further, Al-Qaeda’s disavowal of ISIS appears to place it outside of the set of groups enumerated under the AUMF. Yet, despite whatever perceptions the Obama administration may have on the necessity for diligent, deliberate debate before reaching a decision on Syria, time and course of events on the ground will not allow for a drawn out discussion. The administration’s decision making process must be accelerated. Other capitals worldwide are looking to the US for leadership. For many countries, delays in decision making and action, due to such internal debates, are a manifestation of indecisiveness and lack of clarity on policy in Washington. That has been the source of great disappointment. Some countries have managed to exploit the US delinquency. For example, Russia, Iran, the Assad regime, Hezbollah, Al-Qaeda, and ISIS have managed to find advantages in Syria as a result of the administration’s repetitive delays in acting. It accounts for the strong position each holds in Syria at the present.
Drones have been a critical counterterrorism tool that has advanced US policy and helped to protect US interests globally. Drones use in Syria would effectively mitigate the problem of ISIS and other rogue Islamic militant groups. Targeted groups and individuals would be the ones who have attacked the FSA and committed indiscriminate acts of violence against Syrian civilians.
Drones can silently monitor an individual, group, or location, for hours. The existing arsenal of drones, in particular the MQ-1 Predator and the MQ-9 Reaper, can remain airborne over Syria fully armed for 14 hours compared for example to 4 hours for F-16 fighters and A-10 ground attack aircraft. Drones also can fly directly over Syria without putting pilots or ground troops at risk of injury, capture, or death.
In Syria, US drones would need to perform ostensibly as “air commandos.” As a priority, drones could target leaders of ISIS and other rogue groups. Enough command centers and other locations where leaders gather must be struck simultaneously to throw the groups into chaos and confusion and make it very difficult for them to regenerate. The communications of ISIS and the other rogue Islamic militant groups should be either destroyed by drone strikes or disrupted by other technical means leaving surviving leaders with no control over their units. Once rudderless, the groups’ units would be unable to coordinate actions, unit cohesion would suffer, and they would become far less effective.
Fighting positions of ISIS and rogue Islamic militant groups positions in front of the forces and allies of the Assad regime could also be degraded with drone strikes. The goal would certainly not be to support the Assad regime but to make the ISIS and rogue Islamic militant groups frontline positions less tenable, cause them to realize they could be subjected to further strikes that would result in their killing or capture by Assad’s forces, and send a clear message that they are not wanted in Syria. Drones might need to serve for a period as an over watch for the FSA, ensuring that even small, unorganized bands of fighters of ISIS and other rogue Islamic militant groups would not be able to engage in independent actions to disrupt FSA operations. When possible, strikes could be directed at diverting fighters of destroyed or displaced units pulling away from the frontlines to locations where “kill zones” could be established. In the kill zones, drones could support raids and ambushes against those fighters by FSA units with US direction.
Drone use would be facilitated and made more effective due to the level of situational awareness of events on the ground in Syria possessed by the US intelligence community. Drones could take advantage of a relatively permissive environment in Syria, largely unthreatened by anti-aircraft guns and surface-to-air missiles. Drones could frequently operate at night when ISIS and other group might attempt to conceal their movement on roads. If feasible, some drones could be armed with Gatling guns for the Syria mission to use against large groups of fighters.
It would be best if US drone strikes were conducted covertly. However, in order to truly impact the situation on the ground in Syria, drone strikes must be of sufficient size, strength (firepower), and conducted at very high rate. There would be a virtual whirlwind of drone activity over Syria. Much as other countries, the UN, NATO, nongovernmental organizations, humanitarian organizations, and the news media have monitored the abominable activities of ISIS and other Islamic militant groups in Syria, they will likely be on hand to witness their decimation by US drones. Perhaps the operation could be kept covert to the extent that US officials never discuss it and official documents about it never see the light of day.
Drone strikes should keep ISIS and the other rogue Islamic militant groups at bay. Once they begin, plans for conducting FSA operations without the Islamic militant groups targeted by drones could immediately be put into effect. With ISIS and other rogue Islamic militant groups destroyed or displaced by drone attacks, sufficient numbers of new FSA fighters must be trained, equipped and fielded to replace them. Under US direction, a capable mix of veteran and newly trained recruits could be rapidly deployed in those sectors where the Islamic militant groups were displaced. Security for that movement in the battle area could be provided by drones. All of these actions together will provide FSA with the chance to position itself to defeat Assad’s forces. Meanwhile, with ISIS and other rogue Islamic militant groups forced out, the US would have greater freedom to effectively organize FSA units as a military force, promote the development of greater cohesion and coordination among its units, improve FSA fighting capabilities, and enhance their combat power with better arms. Ideally, drones, in a follow-on role, would be tasked to “clean up” FSA’s situation on the frontlines or would be tasked to provide close air support as FSA units maneuver against the forces and allies of the Assad regime. However, that would likely be deemed too venturous for the Obama administration. Having US advisers fight alongside the FSA is even less of a possibility. Doing both would enhance the FSA’s chances for success.
Central Intelligence Agency
The military is not the only means the US has available to launch drone strikes against ISIS and other rogue Islamic militant groups. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is already steeped in the Syria situation as the lead US agency coping with the training and arming of the FSA. CIA can exploit the situational awareness its officers, operatives and assigned special operations forces have acquired working there. Those individuals, with FSA commanders at their side, have undoubtedly interviewed locals and quietly gained granular information on the Islamic militant groups, including the size of specific units, the locations of its fighters, the backgrounds of individual fighters and commanders, unit capabilities, and both combat and nonlethal supplies.
Islamic groups that seek to work with mainstream groups have most likely been identified by CIA and an effort has likely been made to cultivate ties with them. An additional effort has likely been made to support those groups and place them under the FSA’s control. The whereabouts and activities of Islamic militant groups that are hostile to the concept and intent of the Syrian opposition and have attacked mainstream FSA fighters are well-known by CIA. As it was indicated by the US after the August 21, 2013 chemical weapons attacks near Damascus, beyond human intelligence collection, the US gathers continuous signals and geospatial intelligence in Syria. Multiple streams have undoubtedly allowed the US to pinpoint locations of leaders and units from ISIS and other groups. All points used by foreign fighters to enter Syria are likely being monitored.
CIA would also likely be the organization tasked with rapidly training, equipping, and fielding sufficient numbers of new mainstream fighters to cover any gaps created by the Islamic militant groups destroyed or displaced in FSA controlled territory, particularly those holding fighting positions in front of the forces and allies of the Assad regime. CIA would need to implement contingency plans for conducting FSA operations absent ISIS and other rogue Islamic militant units on the frontlines. Further, CIA would need to organize some FSA units to police rogue Islamic militant fighters left in FSA territory after the collapse of their units.
ISIS and other rogue Islamic militant groups may have convinced themselves that they hold a strong position in Syria and somewhat immune to US response, but they are wrong. US capabilities, given technological advances, when properly applied, can obviate any advantages those groups have been allowed to have. While it would undoubtedly be preferred by the Obama administration to solve problems at the diplomatic table using reason and logic, other people such as the leaders of ISIS and other rogue Islamic militant groups see the world differently. Force must be used to deal with them. Without using such force, the US policy on Syria will not be advanced. Drone strikes appear to be best option for action. Drone use would weaken their influence in Syria and prevent them from attacking the FSA. Moreover, drone use may degrade those groups and thin out their leadership to a degree that initial thoughts of attacking the US will be knocked down. As a new reality for the 21st century internationally is being created, US leadership is still required. The US has played an important role in defeating terrorism worldwide, and must not stop now. US friends and allies, who are concerned with the Middle East and also face threat from the rogue Islamic militant groups, must be assured that the US can still be relied upon. In their hearts, the Syrian people are likely counting on help from the US, too!