President Barack Obama took a big step toward initiating airstrikes in Syria over the weekend, authorizing surveillance flights over the country, according to the New York Times. But moving forward with additional military action is going to be a bit of a balancing act.
On the one side is the Islamic State, the potential target of any strikes. On the other is Syrian President Bashar Assad. IS and Syrian forces fight each other, and the U.S. would prefer neither hold too much sway in the region.
So, the question facing Obama: How can U.S. forces strike IS without strengthening Assad?
The Obama administration has been calling for Assad to step down for three years now. He has offered to help the U.S. and others fight IS, which would happily overrun the country if given the chance. But the atrocities his regime has committed over the course of Syria's civil war make working with him directly a foreign policy nonstarter, at least for the time being.
IS operates across parts of both Iraq and Syria, meaning any strikes in the latter country would likely target sites close to the border to avoid aiding Assad, the New York Times reports. And that's if the strikes come at all — right now, only drones and spy planes are flying over Syrian territory.
Obama national security adviser Benjamin Rhodes told the Times that the situation was not a case of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." More moderate rebels are also fighting Assad while opposing IS, and joining forces with the former to defeat the latter might completely alienate them.
That being said, avoiding strikes altogether would allow the group that has kidnapped and killed Americans to continue fighting unfettered. "I am no apologist for the Assad regime," Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria, told NPR. "They are a brutal bunch of bastards, without question. But in terms of our security, ISIS is by far the largest threat."
Obama previously ordered airstrikes against IS in Iraq, where the group controls part of the country's northern region. The strikes came as IS fighters threatened Kurdish-controlled cities as well as Mount Sinjar, where Yazidi refugees had holed up in fear of being captured or killed.
The strikes helped Iraqi and Kurdish forces regain control of part of the country. In retaliation, IS killed American journalist James Foley and threatened more executions if the U.S. continues military action.