By Peter Korzun
In a significant change of strategy, the United States has announced that it is going to deploy «boots on the ground» soon to assist local forces in fighting the extremist group Islamic State (IS).
With the Iraq and Afghanistan wars fresh in memory, the US has made public its decision to get involved militarily in another Middle East conflict.
US Vice President Joe Biden said on January 23 that the United States and Turkey were prepared for a military solution against the Islamic State in Syria should the Syrian government and rebels fail to reach a political settlement.
The Syria peace talks planned to begin on January 25 in Geneva are at risk of being delayed partly because of a dispute over the composition of the opposition delegation.
The US plans are detailed enough. «The storied 101st Airborne Division will soon deploy 1,800 troops to Iraq to aid in the fight against ISIL (Islamic State). They will head there with the support of the American people and armed with a clear campaign plan to help our allies deliver the barbaric organization a lasting defeat», writes US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter in an article published by Politico.
The Secretary said the US focuses on three military objectives. One, to take back the cities of Mosul, Iraq and Raqqah, Syria – the objectives that constitute terrorists’ centers of gravity. Two, fight the Islamic State (IS) group worldwide. Three, protect the homeland.
The same day CNBC quoted a statement by the US Secretary of defense Ashton Carter that the Western coalition to use ground troops in the fight against the terrorist group in Syria and Iraq.
Though the US military presence in Iraq has been steadily growing over the past year-and-a-half, this marks the first time a senior official acknowledged the presence of combat troops (not instructors) on spot. The policy shift is a clear turnaround from the Obama’s previous stance of not deploying combat troops in Iraq and Syria and one sure to shape the foreign policy debate in the 2016 election. These announcements provoke experts into making a lot of hay over whether that meant the US was engaged in ground war in these countries. Secretary Carter told Congress members that American soldiers would be conducting raids in places including Syria as far back as last October.
The US War Powers Resolution requires the President to notify Congress within 48 hours of committing armed forces to military action and forbids armed forces from remaining for more than 60 days, with a further 30 day withdrawal period, without a Congressional authorization for use of military force or a declaration of war.
The US ground presence in Iraq, which began with the commitment of a mere 300 advisors in June of 2014, has increased to over 3,500. In Syria, the Obama Administration has moved to establish a permanent presence by US special operators, ostensibly to bolster the logistics of local fighters battling the jihadists. This isn’t the first time US special operations units have been on the ground in Syria, but it is the first time they will stay. Like in Vietnam, Lebanon, Somalia and a host of other locations, the commitment of ground troops gradually grows into an often ill-defined unpopular military campaign in a country of marginal consequence.
The new White House policy directly contradicts multiple promises personally made by President Barack Obama that he would not put combat boots on the ground in Syria.
During his 2013 address, Obama said one major reason for his firm, no-troops-in-Syria policy is that Americans are «sick and tired» of aimless, unending wars in the Middle East. The Obama administration is yet to publicly identify the goals it plans to achieve through the deployment of combat troops in Syria.
The Islamic State became a major player in the region after US departure from Iraq. The US military had largely wiped out extremists in the province of Anbar before withdrawing. With US troops gone, the group was able to rebuild in what is often referred to by outsiders as the «vacuum» that followed America’s presence. Winning war, the US fails to build peace with no local governments and militaries in place to effectively maintain law and order. The probability is great that injecting US ground forces into the fight against the Islamic State would result in the very same thing America has experienced all too frequently in recent years – a kind of perpetual war with little chance of reaching the expected outcome and the risk to spark broader escalation. This is confirmed by terrible outcomes of the recent operations in Libya and the mishandled ventures in Iraq and Afghanistan.
There is a crucially important aspect of the matter that the US leaders have not mentioned in their statements. What other countries will commit ground forces? Have they made arrangements regarding the rules of engagement? What norms of international law exactly will be used to justify the action? It’s hard to imagine the Syrian and Iraqi governments approve the idea of having US combat troops deployed on their soil. For instance, Iraqi leaders have said «no» on many occasions. Once the decision is taken and the operation actually started, the US has to make arrangements with the Russia-Syria-Iran coalition. The deployment of ground troops is impossible without coordinating activities with the Russian and Syrian forces. Even if the US and its NATO allies act in violation of international law, the deployment should be preceded by intensive talks between the Russian and military leaders. The establishment of a coordination cell is inevitable. It all makes intensive Russia-NATO military-to-military contacts an issue of paramount importance.
No doubt, it’s not a pure coincidence that the US troops deployment takes place at the very same time the UN-sponsored negotiation process on Syria is about to kick off in Geneva.