STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Here's what the U.S. has used against ISIS - or ISIL - an air offensive with powerful weapons and allies.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Here's what the U.S. has not built up against ISIS in Syria - any credible ground force.
INSKEEP: Michele Flournoy, a former senior Pentagon official, helped us understand why that is a problem.
Give me some military 101. Why is it necessary to have ground forces along with a powerful air campaign?
MICHELE FLOURNOY: Because air campaigns can destroy targets. They can make people flee an area for a time. But inevitably they will come back in and reclaim that territory and so you need those ground forces to actually take and hold territory on a more permanent basis.
INSKEEP: President Obama has ruled out using U.S. ground troops except his advisers and even then only in Iraq. That leaves the U.S. hoping to restore Iraq's battered army and build up more moderate Syrian rebel forces, who are fighting both Syria's government and ISIS.
FLOURNOY: Certainly on the Syrian side of the border this is going to take months, if not years. On the Iraqi side of the border, I think you're likely to see results sooner. You have units of the Iraqi army that I think will be reconstituted with our special operations forces advising and training them. You will see the formation of some Sunni national guard units to be able to work in the Sunni areas.
INSKEEP: Let's remind people that ISIS has largely taken over Sunni parts of the country, right?
FLOURNOY: Yes. Yes. And so I think on the Iraqi side, it's a matter of months that you're going to start to see the combination of ground force movements with air support or air campaigns helping them be more effective.
INSKEEP: What makes you think that can be done even in months? Because Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pointed out that something like half of the Iraqi army, in his view, had been rendered ineffective by defeats, desertions and other problems; leadership crisis and so forth.
FLOURNOY: That's true, but I think the assessment that's come back said, you know, there are a couple of dozen units that are close to being capable and ready to move forward. In addition, you've also started to see some, I think, promising grassroots activity where in a place like Mosul, you have self-formed teams starting to take on the ISIS leadership through some targeted killings and so forth. So as you get that bottom up kind of groundswell up, particularly in the Sunni communities, this is the beginning, I think, of the population standing up and saying, no, we don't want ISIS here. And ultimately to be successful, that's what you need.
INSKEEP: Is there actually an opportunity there? Because this is a group that's now trying to hold lots and lots of ground, and they really don't have all that many fighters.
FLOURNOY: I think there is. Because you know, it's one thing to be on an offensive role and uncontested. Nobody's pushing back. When you start having to fear for your own life, worry about being targeted from the air, worry about, you know, some group coming and you know, assassinating you when you're not paying attention, you start spending a lot more of your time on your own safety and security as opposed to offensive action or taking new territory.
INSKEEP: So you've got an opportunity - you think - in the coming months rather than years to get some forces together that might begin to push ISIS out of Iraq?
INSKEEP: Suppose that works out - the Iraqi forces get to the Syrian border. Of course, they stop at the Syrian border. And here's this group that still holds a great deal of Syria. What happens then?
FLOURNOY: Well, then I think you focus your efforts, both the air campaign and in terms of support to the opposition, in Syria. But again, that's going to take more time. Dealing with ISIS and with these other groups, from al-Nusra Front to Khorasan and others that can potentially threaten the United States.
INSKEEP: Let me come back to a much discussed remark of President Obama some weeks ago. He said we don't have a strategy yet. If I'm not mistaking he was saying specifically in Syria we don't have a strategy yet? That's the really hard thing to figure out, who to back and how to go ahead here.
FLOURNOY: But, you know, a week later he announced a strategy.
INSKEEP: Well, that's my question. That's my question. Do you think when it comes specifically to Syria - not Iraq, I think we're clear on what the U.S. wants to do in Iraq. Do you think there is a strategy yet for Syria?
FLOURNOY: I think there is a strategy, but there's no easy outcome. I think the strategy is to get to the point on the battlefield where you'd force a negotiation about who comes after Assad, but it's going to take time.
INSKEEP: Michele Flournoy thanks for coming by.
FLOURNOY: Thank you.
INSKEEP: She served in the Pentagon earlier in President Obama's administration and is now CEO of the Center for a New American Security.
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