Airstrikes in Syria just a beginning

In an otherwise unhinged diatribe, the Islamic State’s chief spokesman made a boast that is uncomfortably close to the truth:

“O crusaders, you have realized the threat of the Islamic State, but you have not become aware of the cure, and you will not discover the cure because there is no cure,” Abu Mohammed al Adnani said on an audiotape released Monday. “If you fight it, it becomes stronger and tougher. If you leave it alone, it grows and expands.”

This is precisely the predicament in which the United States and the West find themselves. Ignoring this growing threat only invites its expansion and increased stability. Attempting to destroy it requires a level of engagement that most Americans will not support, and is probably futile in any case.

A majority of Americans, and of Congress, support the Obama administration’s current airstrike campaign against ISIS targets in Syria. A new Washington Post-ABC poll found that 71 percent of respondents back airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq, and nearly two-thirds support them in Syria.

That’s nearly a complete reversal from a year ago. Public support for military action is fickle, though, and could taper quickly the deeper America and its allies trudge in chasing President Obama’s stated goal of “destroying” the Islamic State. The airstrikes are easy to get behind, given the low risk they pose to U.S. personnel. They are insufficient, however, for eliminating the extremist network. That would require a significant and prolonged American military presence on the ground in Syria and elsewhere, a scenario that neither we nor a majority of the public embraces.

We’re also pessimistic about Obama’s strategy of arming and training rebels within Syria. Questions around that abound: How would 5,000 even well-trained and well-armed rebels counter the 30,000 militants under ISIS’s umbrella? After years of reluctance to do this because there’s no telling who the “good” rebels are, what has changed? And if the jihadists defeated an even larger group of U.S.-backed rebels in Iraq, what makes us think we’ll be more successful in Syria?

The airstrikes are necessary. They will disrupt the Islamic State, perhaps kill some of its leaders, and make it more difficult for the group to launch a successful attack on the West in the near term. That the U.S. was joined by five Arab nations in the attack is unprecedented and important. Containing the extremists will require Arabs and Muslims combating them internally, not only with military might but also with efforts to cut off their financing and their popularity.

Americans, though, need to fully understand that the bombing is just one more step in a very long fight. Obama’s goal of eliminating ISIS and other al-Qaida offshoots is admirable. It is also, we believe, unrealistic. The unsettling truth is that international relations have evolved and the West is now in a fight not with a nation-state but with a radical ideology that spreads like a virus across parts of the world. The fight against that virus is likely to last as long as we all live.