The Complex

Iraqi Town Awaits Mount Sinjar-Like Rescue

While Washington focuses on when the United States might begin bombing Islamic State targets in Syria, another town in Iraq has the U.S. military's attention.

The Islamic State has besieged Amerli, home to at least 13,000 Shiite Turkmen, since June 15. With militants surrounding the town, fears are growing that Amerli could be overrun and its residents slaughtered. In the meantime, inhabitants don't have enough food or water and face "a complete absence of medical services," according to the United Nations, which has implored the international community to intervene.

"The situation of the people in Amerli is desperate and demands immediate action to prevent the possible massacre of its citizens," Nickolay Mladenov, the head of the U.N. Assistance Mission in Iraq, said Aug. 23.

The United States has not launched airstrikes or begun humanitarian airdrops there. However, Iraqi warplanes reportedly started bombing the area Tuesday while Iraqi forces, aided by Shiite militias, are preparing to launch a counteroffensive to break the Islamic State's siege.

"We're focused on reviewing options to assess how we can best help alleviate the situation in Amerli," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Thursday. "Our embassy and military personnel at our joint operation centers in Iraq are already working closely with the Iraqi government to share information and discuss ways to provide relief to those in need, and certainly we're having ongoing internal discussions as well."

A senior defense official told Foreign Policy that the Pentagon is monitoring the situation and ready to assist, if needed.

Local fighters have seen U.S. warplanes and drones flying over the besieged town for days but not striking, said Hayder al-Khoei, an expert on Iraq at Chatham House, a policy institute based in London.

"They are expecting a push tonight or tomorrow morning from the Iraqi security forces and Shia militias to break the siege; but they are extremely tired and there has been very limited humanitarian relief," Khoei told Foreign Policy on Thursday after speaking to local fighters on the ground. Iraqi security forces are progressing toward Amerli but the Islamic State still completely surrounds the town, Khoei said.

The Obama administration on Tuesday was "nearing a decision to authorize airstrikes and airdrops of food and water," according to the New York Times, but had yet to act by Thursday afternoon. In contrast, the Obama administration moved quickly earlier this month to save thousands of Iraq's Yazidi community trapped on Mount Sinjar, driven there by the Islamic State.

"There is an opportunity to act and some would say a moral obligation to do so, but what are the criteria for times we act? The number of deaths? How sophisticated the media strategy is by the people on the receiving end?" asked Jon Alterman, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Without a clear strategy for fighting the Islamic State in Iraq, the pressure for the United States to respond to the day's headlines and images will continue, he said.

"It's time to make choices about what we're going to do. What is important? What is vital? What's intolerable?" Alterman asked.

The U.S. military's current mandate is limited to protecting U.S. personnel and facilities, supporting Iraqi security forces and Kurdish defense operations, and assisting humanitarian efforts. It has bombed to protect U.S. personnel and facilities in Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region; to save the Yazidi community on Mount Sinjar; and to retake the Mosul Dam from the Islamic State.

U.S. airstrikes continued on Thursday in the vicinity of the Mosul Dam, according to U.S. Central Command. From Aug. 8 through Aug. 28, U.S. planes conducted 106 airstrikes across Iraq, two-thirds of which were near the Mosul Dam.

President Barack Obama touted the effect of the American airstrikes on Thursday, saying they had caused the Islamic State to lose arms, equipment, and territory. But he also tamped down expectations for further interventions. 

"Where we see an opportunity that allows us with very modest risk to help the humanitarian situation there, as we did in Sinjar Mountain, we will take those opportunities after having consulted with Congress," Obama said during a briefing at the White House. "But our core priority right now is just to make sure that our folks are safe and to do an effective assessment of Iraqi and Kurdish capabilities."

Kadir Ustun, research director at the SETA Foundation, a Washington, D.C., think tank focused on Turkey and U.S.-Turkey relations, said that the United States and its allies, including the Iraqi government, will have to focus in the immediate term on saving these pockets of vulnerable people and protecting critical assets.

But "a whack-a-mole strategy is not going to solve the problem" that's been created by the rise of the Islamic State, he added.

For now the fate of the residents of Amerli lies in the hands of Iraqi forces -- and the Islamic State.

"Like the Yazidis of Sinjar, the Turkmen of Amerli will be slaughtered if no one comes to their rescue," Khoei said.

ALI AL-BAYATI/AFP/Getty Images

The Complex

Syria Mission Could Start Easy But Become More Complex

If the Obama administration actually takes the fight to the Islamic State in Syria, it would likely do so in stages, hitting the easiest targets first and the most difficult ones later as it develops a richer picture of the battlefield, former intelligence officials and experts say.

"That's generally how an air war progresses," retired Air Force two-star Maj. Gen. Jim Poss, a career intelligence officer, told Foreign Policy.

Just last year, the Pentagon contemplated bombing Syria after President Bashar al-Assad unleashed chemical weapons -- sarin gas that did not discriminate between fighters and citizens. The Pentagon envisioned a brief, decisive campaign against stationary targets. The mission now under consideration is far more challenging: Hit smaller, mobile targets difficult to identify without ground forces, all the while facing a forewarned enemy that prepared while President Barack Obama weighed acting.

Depending on when the "go" order is issued, U.S. military personnel could quickly identify the "low-hanging fruit" targets -- armored vehicles, artillery, and other hardware relatively easy to spot from the air. The United States could establish a "no-drive" zone to prevent enemy forces from crossing the border into Iraq and armed aircraft could strike them once they were identified, Poss said.

The next stage would require refined intelligence gathered from drone feeds taken over days or weeks and would hit ammunition supply points and other such targets. The most difficult mission -- one that the White House may not have an appetite for -- would go after the Islamic State's leadership.

Launching that phase could take weeks or even months, as drone operators and intelligence analysts amassed a deeper understanding of militant leaders' "patterns of life."

"It takes hours and hours of video in order to put it together," Poss said, noting that it's doable. "It's almost shocking how well we get to know the habits of our targets."

The Atlantic Council's Faysal Itani told FP that the Islamic State has "some highly visible assets," including military headquarters, energy assets, and lines of communications through open areas.

"They are not some murky, underground insurgent group. In many ways, their ambition has made them more visible."

But their fighting force is highly mobile, making it difficult to target, and Raqqa, the group's base in northern Syria, is also more complicated as it is a dense, urban environment, he said.

The scope, objective, and length of a Syrian mission -- or even whether one will materialize -- remain very murky. Some administration officials, including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, have warned against ignoring the Islamic State. Others, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, have been more circumspect. Earlier this week Dempsey hinted that the Sunni militants are a direct threat to the American homeland. Then on Aug. 25, Dempsey's spokesman clarified that the group formerly known as ISIS "will soon become" a threat to the United States and Europe.

The Islamic State "should be pressured both in Iraq and in Syria," Dempsey's statement read. The chairman was "preparing options" to attack militants in both countries with "a variety of military tools, including airstrikes."

But first unmanned drones must survey Syria from above. The United States has yet to acknowledge publicly that those flights will even take place, though there are a variety of reports that indicate they have already begun. A Pentagon spokesman on Wednesday said the Defense Department would not announce publicly if and when such flights were to begin.

Once such intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, or ISR, operations produce useable intelligence, the Obama administration will have a much clearer picture of the Syrian situation and terrain, where the Islamic State has its origins.

Beyond tactical obstacles, Obama must decide if the United States will get into bed with Assad for the purposes of fighting the Sunni militants who have been waging war against him since 2011. U.S. officials dismissed out of hand reports that Washington has shared intelligence with Damascus -- an incredible proposition for an administration that has been trying to eliminate Assad.

"We are not coordinating with the Assad regime on the operations that we're conducting in Iraq or the operations or any efforts to combat ISIL," Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said on Tuesday.

The United States needs informants in Syria and aircraft in place to precisely target Islamic State fighters. The U.S. military has a formidable arsenal of armed drones and piloted aircraft but its local spy network appears to be lacking. American efforts to "vet" rebel forces in Syria have been limited. And the U.S. military doesn't have a deep and reliable network of friendly forces on which it can rely.

In July, U.S. commandos failed to rescue American journalist James Foley and others held in Syria after receiving what one U.S. official called "bad intelligence" about their location, which had come from local spies and previously freed hostages. When the American forces arrived, no hostages were found.

Intelligence officials also acknowledge they don't know exactly where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State's leader, is. However, the United States' ground intelligence capabilities are increasing. Current and former U.S. officials say that the intelligence community, and in particular the CIA, has at least the beginnings of an informant network there. They credit the spy agency's training of Syrian rebel fighters at a base in Jordan. Additionally, the U.S. military may have to insert a small number of special operations forces into Syria, potentially embedding with those moderate forces, to assist with an air campaign.

Syria is not completely a black box to U.S. spies, though. In August 2013, American intelligence picked up indications three days beforehand that the Syrian regime was poised to launch the lethal chemical attack that killed more than 1,400 people and set the stage for a possible U.S. military strike on Syria, according to an assessment the White House released when Obama was building a public case for military action last year -- a step he ultimately didn't take.

But chemical weapons production and storage facilities make much better targets. Now the United States would have to contend with much more nimble targets.

It would also potentially face a Syrian air defense system that the Pentagon considers sophisticated enough to pose a threat to invading aircraft, as it is unclear whether Assad would confront American aircraft targeting his Islamic State enemies. The risk to U.S. aircraft and personnel has raised the question of whether the military would seek the Syrian government's permission to strike the Islamic State and its assurance that Syrian forces won't fire on American planes.

Walid Muallem, Syria's foreign minister, has hinted that the Assad regime is open to working with the Americans on airstrikes.

"Syria is ready to cooperate and coordinate on the regional and international level in the war on terror," Muallem said at a news conference on Monday. He also suggested that the Americans should have worked with the Syrians in July on the attempt to rescue Foley. "Had there been prior coordination that operation wouldn't have failed," Muallem said. But he made clear that the Syrian government would not merely accede to another U.S. military operation on its soil; any U.S. airstrikes conducted without Syrian permission "will be considered as aggression," Muallem said.

Direct consent from the government might not be required, however. For years, the United States has launched drone strikes against terrorists and Taliban militants in Pakistan with an implied or tacit permission from the government, as opposed to an outright invitation.

Although it's likely the United States would need to deploy special operations forces inside Syria, there is precedent for conducting an air-only campaign. A U.S.-led coalition didn't have forces inside Libya during the 2011 bombing campaign.

Ralph Jodice, a retired Army three-star general who served as the NATO Combined Forces Air Component commander during Operation Unified Protector in Libya, said that operation relied heavily on intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.

"You take all of those things and fuse them together to build a picture," Jodice said. "That can happen quickly or it can take weeks."

Rami Al-Sayed/AFP