"If at first you don't succeed, try, try again." -Anonymous
Last week, President Obama announced a critical new development in the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. After several largely unsuccessful attempts to remove ISIS from power which involved arming "allied" rebel groups and launching airstrikes, U.S. military personnel will be re-entering the region with (some) troops on the ground. Despite numerous reassurances that this would not happen, the White House has potentially opened the door into a much more direct (and dangerous) combat role. Special forces soldiers will now be conducting training missions (and probably also covert operations) within Syria (and likely Iraq too). This is designed to support the allied Kurdish and Arab forces to help them directly confront ISIS forces. Though the administration has not said these forces will be supporting anti-Assad fighters in Syria, it is likely they will probably end up assisting in the proxy war against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad while they are there. So is this the start of a new chapter in America's military involvement in the Middle East, or just another bad sequel?
In case you haven't been keeping up on events in Syria and Iraq (shame!), here is one of our previous posts to help explain things. Currently, the United States is actively engaged in a campaign of supporting the (not terrorist) forces fighting Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, as well as the forces fighting the fundamentalist group known as ISIS. Russia, for its part, is supporting Assad (and pretending to fight ISIS), making this whole situation somewhat reminiscent of the proxy wars of the Cold War. Assad has slowly been losing ground in the fight against his rivals over the past four years. However, the American backed forces have also had their share of difficulties. With recent attempts to train rebel forces falling flat and airstrikes against ISIS being only moderately effective, it seems that the U.S. will now look to Special Forces operations to help tip the balance of the fight.
But wait, didn't Obama's Authorization for the Use of Military Force say we wouldn't get involved in a land war in Asia? Not quite. The text of the authorization states that America would not become involved in "enduring offensive ground combat operations." This would seem to preclude large armored and infantry divisions, but technically allows for small, covert Special Forces units to be deployed. That being said, the administration did make several promises that American "boots on the ground" would not be used. Despite the administration's best semantic gymnastics this week, the move to deploy Special Forces to the region is a clear departure from this previous strategy. Some are criticizing the administration for breaking one of it's most important promises. But then again, things didn't look nearly as bad as they do now when those promises were first made.
What is the U.S. hoping to gain from this endeavor? In addition to more direct oversight of allied training programs, this would allow Special Forces units to directly support allied forces in operations against ISIS. (Though the administration flatly denies that there will be combat missions, it seems very clear that this would be occurring behind the scenes.) The ultimate goal is to destroy the central governing power of ISIS and allow Sunni tribes (and Kurdish factions) to retake control of these regions. However, this will likely also be a means for the U.S. to support its allies in the fight against Assad. This would greatly improve America's bargaining power in negotiating a settlement of the devastating Syrian Civil War. Negotiations are going on right now in Vienna to attempt to reach a resolution of the fighting, though immediate progress is unlikely.
So far, this doesn't sound too bad, right? A bunch of Special Forces units conduct secret missions and in return America gets to help remove ISIS, re-stabilize the region, and (possibly) negotiate the departure of Assad from Syria. The problem with this arises in a phenomenon called mission creep. This is the idea that as time goes on, military forces will become more and more involved in a conflict and its mission will start to creep into new areas. Like the proverbial frog in a pot of boiling water, this could (in the most extreme scenario) mean an escalation of forces into a sustained ground presence or even the deployment of entire military divisions. It is unlikely the current administration would allow things to escalate to this level, but other scenarios can place the U.S. in a difficult position here. For instance, American soldiers could be killed or captured, bringing a new dynamic into an already extremely complicated situation.
How is this strategy different from the Iraq invasion of 2003? We have already examined the lead up to the Iraq war in a series of earlier posts, so check these out to get the basics of Iraq in 2003. Though the end goal appears to be similar (removing terrorist havens and having U.S.-friendly groups control the region), the main departure seems to be about strategy. From the very beginning, this campaign has been geared towards helping the people help themselves rather than assuming that the American military can do it all alone. This is a much more subtle and behind-the-scenes approach to achieving its objectives, and will likely be more effective in the long run than rolling into Ramadi with tanks and troops.
The biggest question of all (and one that was hauntingly absent from the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq) is this: what happens if the U.S. wins? Is ISIS territory in Iraq going to be given back to the Iraqi government to administer (on that note can they even administer it?). What about ISIS territory in Syria? Will this be decided in the peace talks over the future of Assad? Who will pay for the reconstruction of two devastated countries? Will there even be a reconstruction effort, or will the world quickly forget about Iraq and Syria once the conflict is finally over (leaving in place the same disastrous social, economic, and educational deficiencies which helped give rise to ISIS in the first place)? War is infinitely complicated, and there are still no clearly defined outcomes from the administration on this plan. Dropping "boots on the ground" in Syria and Iraq isn't necessarily a bad idea if done correctly. But if there isn't a clearly defined, measurable, and flexible plan for the post-conflict process, how will this be any different from previous efforts in the region?
Perhaps the American military's grand strategy in the Middle East is doomed from the start. This strategy works on the underlying assumption that America's dominant military, diplomatic, and economic power can bring others to do what America wants them to do. This tends to work well for nation-states, but mostly falls apart on a community or personal level (which is far more important in this region. If the military's end goal is simply to bring stability, then maybe there is a shot at achieving this. But if the military goes into this with naive and grandiose dreams of creating an America-friendly, Sunni-Shia paradise (as we did in the 2003 invasion), then we shouldn't be surprised when such efforts fail disastrously. This isn't to say that such a nation is an impossibility, but it requires several decades of educational, economic, social, and political stability and development before such a dream can become viable. Gone are the days when military victory meant large battles, surrendering armies, and clean power transfers. The types of conflicts we find ourselves in now involve years of careful work, meticulous planning, and excruciating patience. Even in the best case scenario, we are in for a long fight.
Ultimately, history (and the America public) will judge the wisdom of the current approach towards fighting America's enemies. If this strategy is executed intelligently and with an appreciation of the complex and competing interests of local populations in the region, this new chapter in America's military involvement in Iraq could become our Return of the Jedi. But if this is only a means to a larger military operation to fundamentally alter the Middle East, ending in quagmire and failed states, Iraq War III might turn out more like the Godfather Part III.
Tl;DR: Expect things to get a lot worse in Iraq and Syria before they get better.