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Should Airstrikes Against ISIS Continue?

ARUN RATH, HOST:

NATO countries have acknowledged the need for a global plan of attack against the militant group ISIS. One option the White House is considering is airstrikes against ISIS in Syria. The group now controls vast amounts of territory in the northern part of that country. For more on the potential goals of additional airstrikes, we turn to Douglas Ollivant. He's a former Middle East security advisor to President George W. Bush and President Obama. Douglas Ollivant, welcome to the program.

DOUGLAS OLLIVANT: Thanks very much.

RATH: Now the U.S. has already been using airstrikes against Islamic State fighters in northern Iraq, most notably to take back control of a crucial dam in the region. But ISIS still has control of a lot of territory. Can you talk about the limitations of airpower and taking on an enemy like ISIS?

OLLIVANT: Airpower is extremely useful in taking on an opponent who's attacking. So the president was actually very judicious in the way that he explained how airpower would be used - that it would only be used against forces that were attacking Erbil or Baghdad or attacking against humanitarian sites. Forces that are attacking are very vulnerable to airpower. Forces that are defending, and particularly defending in cities, are considerably less so.

RATH: So you said that the airstrikes could be effective in limiting movement. Can they be effective in driving forces back?

OLLIVANT: That's harder. Now, they can help isolate places and make sure that it can't be reinforced and can't get more resupplied, can't have additional fighters go in. But unfortunately, the work of pushing ISIS out of the cities will be a ground power effort done the old-fashioned way.

RATH: Doug, you are an advisor on Iraq to both President George W. Bush and President Obama. Given what you've seen in Iraq and what you know about counterinsurgency fighting, do you think there is a need for ground troops to control ISIS advances in Syria?

OLLIVANT: Well, there's certainly a need for some ground troops. Now if the question is should that be American ground troops, I think the answer is clearly no. The troops need to come from the region for a host of reasons, most of them political. Now fortunately, we seem to have a wide array of allies to choose from. Some of those allies are suboptimal, like the Iranians, but we've also seen some Kurdish groups, some of which are listed terrorist groups. We have the Iraqi army, both its Arab side and its Kurdish side. I think these are the groups that we'll rely on to do the bulk of the fighting.

RATH: And we have our European allies. NATO has said it's going to continue to support forces that oppose ISIS on the ground in Iraq and in Syria. What does that mean though? Who are the U.S.'s viable military and political allies on the ground in Syria right now?

OLLIVANT: Syria is hard. The politics in Iraq are hard. The politics in Syria are impossible. We're in a place where the group we would really like to have that has the military capacity to fight against ISIS, the Syrian regime, is simply politically impossible for us to align with - at least right now, unless things really change. Conversely, the side that we politically support, the Free Syrian Army, just really doesn't have the military capacity to take the fight to ISIS. Now, they're defending their own regions against ISIS. They are fighting ISIS, but they really don't have the offensive capability.

RATH: Douglas Ollivant is a former Security Adviser on Iraq to President Bush and Obama. He's a current Senior National Security Fellow at the New America Foundation. Douglas Ollivant, thank you very much.

OLLIVANT: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.