In a speech to the world from the White House on Sept. 10, 2014, President Obama authorized renewed airstrikes in Iraq and Syria to defeat and dismantle the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL), as well as the deployment of 475 additional military advisers to Iraq, bringing the number of American troops in that country to 1,600. Emphasizing that the United States was locked in a long-term battle with these militant Islamic factions and terrorists, Obama laid out the parameters of a strategy aimed at systematically rolling back ISIL.
This strategy, as he noted, involves promoting a unified Iraqi government, supporting a moderate Syrian opposition, forging a regional alliance among the very same actors who have played a major part in the creation of ISIL, and finally, mobilizing a broader consensus and seeking cooperation from some key allies such as Germany, France, Great Britain, Denmark, and Australia.
But crafting new strategies or reinvigorating old ones have enduring consequences. Looking at the big picture, I submit that the war against ISIL has the potential to alter the endgame once any operation is underway. Doing a reality check gives us more control over our decisions and strategy.
First of all, the threat of ISIL has been overstated.
Second, the mobilization of local and regional forces to fight ISIL, although precarious at times, should be achievable because ISIL poses a direct threat to regional players such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, and Qatar. The inclusion of Iran in a regional coalition against ISIL must be seriously considered, especially if an agreement over the nuclear dispute is reached between Iran and the “five-plus-one” group (Britain, France, China, Russia, the United States, and Germany) this fall.
Third, supporting a moderate Syrian opposition has failed to accomplish anything; it has in fact put the US in bed with the Al-Nusra faction, which is affiliated with Al-Qaeda and which recently took credit for the kidnapping and hostage taking of 45 Fijian peace keepers only recently released. The moderate factions in the Syria’s crisis are weak, divided, and have yet to come up with a broadly acceptable vision for the post-Assad context, if/when that becomes a possibility.
So what is the whole enchilada of the Obama Administration’s new foreign policy initiative? This strategy may result in three possibilities. The first possibility is that after defeating ISIL, the US and its allies might pressure the Assad regime and moderate rebel forces to engage in diplomatic talks over a possible political transition. That possibility appears to be a long shot.
The second possibility may appear counterintuitive, but it is worth considering—that is, the defeat of ISIL may lead to conditions ironically conducive to toppling the Assad regime. Having lost the battle over Ukraine to Russia, some US strategists may decide to take the fight to the southern and western parts of Syria, where Russians have vested interests in the city of Tartus’ ports.
The potential for mission creep may now seem highly unlikely, but if the United States infiltrates Syrian borders — with the tacit or explicit approval of the Assad regime — to initially degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL forces, and if this involves cooperation with so-called “moderate” anti-Assad forces, which have in the past proven inept in overthrowing the Assad regime in Damascus, these operations could serve to pave the way for targeting the Assad regime. It is too often the case that military missions and plans become new grounds for evolving goals.
The third possibility is that Syria remains in the status-quo ante, regardless of the outcome of the war against ISIL. That scenario appears unlikely given that the threat of extremism is growing exponentially with every passing day. In all these scenarios, the issue is not the unintended consequences over which policymakers may or may not have much control.
Quite the contrary, U.S. officials may at some point seriously consider the possibility of supporting deliberate actions against the Assad regime from inside Syrian territory. Recent history is very instructive. US forces invaded Iraq in 2003, toppled Saddam Hussein, and subsequently captured and surrendered him to Shiite groups, who eventually executed him. All this despite the fact that his regime intimately cooperated with the United States during its bloody eight-year war with Iran, which the US government deemed compatible with its interests as it kept the Islamists’ power in Iran at bay.
Listening to President Obama underline the fact that “the United States was locked in a long battle with a successor to Al-Qaeda,” reminded me of the region’s history and of the fact that military missions of this sort, planned or otherwise, are like a huge truck on a slippery road, and could at times move in new and unforeseen directions. While the military actions against ISIL are warranted, it is equally important to raise some questions: How would the scope of such operations be defined? Is the endgame simply to defeat and ultimately destroy ISIL? Or does the mission go beyond that by attempting to shape the future in Syria?
The debate over the extent and scope of military engagement — especially given the further uncertainty injected by Gen. Martin Dempsey regarding his support for committing American ground troops if/when necessary — merits particular attention. Limited and controlled operations have in the past turned into open-ended missions, raising serious questions that have long haunted us. We need to envision such possibilities and put their ramifications into perspective by raising such relevant questions. This explains why it is necessary to have congressional debates and oversight over the decisions of those who could very well redirect the endgame toward other mission goals.