In Iraq, echoes of Vietnam with Obama’s creeping build-up
BEIRUT - As Barack Obama’s two-term presidency slides into its twilight months, the US military is building up its assets in Iraq and Syria to escalate the war against the Islamic State (ISIS), an apocalyptic jihadist group born out of US bungling in Iraq and Syria over the last 13 years.
The big questions are: How far will Obama, who has assiduously sought to avoid plunging the United States into another Middle Eastern quagmire, go with this campaign that is putting US forces in the firing line for the first time since the US withdrawal from Iraq in December 2011, and will his successor carry on the fight when the baton is passed in January?
There is a clamour in the US Congress, led by Republican hawks such as the rambunctious Senator John McCain, R-Arizona and a decorated hero of the Vietnam war, for a wider military commitment in the Middle East to stamp out the jihadist cause as Geneva peace talks go nowhere. Obama is also under pressure from European allies who are desperate to stem the tidal wave of Middle Eastern refugees that threaten to swamp them.
McCain has said the creeping deployment was long overdue but ultimately insufficient.
“Another reluctant step down the dangerous road of gradual escalation will not undo the damage in Syria to which this administration has borne passive witness,” he said.
Obama’s generals have been pushing him to get tougher with ISIS and both presumptive candidates to be the next president are far more hawkish than Obama is. It remains to be seen whether the current “mission creep” will result in a major US deployment that would inevitably mean significant American fatalities.
The overall objective is to eradicate ISIS, which originated in Iraq during the eight-year US occupation and that will eventually mean having to fight it in Syria as well to crush the caliphate that spans both countries.
Indeed, there is speculation that bolstering the Iraqi Army offensive launched on March 24th against the northern city of Mosul will at some point be matched by a similar push in Syria against the caliphate’s de facto capital, the northern Syrian city of Raqqa.
The rationale is that ISIS would be trapped in a pincer movement, with Mosul and Raqqa unable to reinforce each other. Retaking Mosul, with a current population of 1.5 million, “Will be the most difficult battle Iraqi forces have ever faced,” warned Baghdad-based analyst Wathiq al-Hashimi. “Without the fighting spirit, the result would be catastrophic.”
Because to take Mosul will take firepower and, if the Americans cannot find reliable Arab allies on the ground — and that has always been the big problem — it would mean what Obama has consistently avoided: “boots on the ground” and lots of them, supported by air power that includes B-52 strategic bombers.
The US escalation in Iraq and to a lesser degree in Syria is minuscule compared to the forces the Americans employed in 2003 and throughout the occupation and only emphasises the extent of the retreat of US power in the Middle East, its confused, ham-fisted response to ISIS and the degree that Russia and Iran have moved in to fill the security vacuum.
The Americans have deployed heavy weapons in Iraq in recent months, underlining their effort to beef up Iraqi forces without having to send in large numbers of ground troops. US warplanes have dropped 40,000 bombs on ISIS targets since August 2014. The weapons include at least two batteries of M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) that can plaster ISIS command centres and firebases with broadsides of satellite-guided rockets from a range of 40km.
US officers say a third HIMARS unit will be deployed in the Tigris river valley to back the Iraqi push. Another is expected to go to southern Turkey to blast ISIS in northern Syria. Another M142 is in Jordan and has engaged ISIS forces in southern Syria several times in recent months. The United States is also committed to sending more self-propelled 155mm Paladin howitzers to help the Iraqis claw back territory from ISIS.
On April 9th, the US Air Force deployed an unspecified number of B-52s at the Al Udeid air base in Qatar, the nerve centre for US air operations in the region. It is the first time these aircraft have been based in the Middle East since the end of the 1990-91 Gulf War.
The Cold War-era Strafortresses replaced a wing of B-1 bombers. They carry precision-guided munitions that could be critical in the Mosul operation and probably against ISIS strongholds in Syria.
Recapturing Mosul is the primary target and that means reinforcing the faltering offensive by the Iraqi Army’s 15th Division, which has bogged down amid intensive ISIS counter-attacks and waves of suicide bombers, sectarian rivalries and political infighting in Baghdad.
To do this, the Americans’ landmark decision to send in US-crewed AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, formidable weapons against insurgent forces, underlines what seems to be a strengthened commitment to hammer ISIS.
It is widely believed that the Americans actually have more forces in Iraq and Syria than has been announced — and the Pentagon has indulged in creative bookkeeping by listing soldiers and Marines currently in Iraq as being assigned there on “temporary duty”.
There have been reports, unverified, that the United States has deployed elements of the US Army 82nd Airborne Division in Iraq, supposedly to bolster the offensive on Mosul, which may well be the defining operation of the war on ISIS, one that is widening quite rapidly.
Indeed, these deployments extend beyond Iraq and Syria. The US publicly acknowledged on May 6th that special forces are being sent into Yemen to go after ISIS and al- Qaeda there.