Obama quietly ramps up war against ISIS
BEIRUT - US President Barack Obama, despite repeated pledges he would not commit US troops for combat in the wars in Syria and Iraq, is doing just that and is quietly escalating the US fight against the Islamic State (ISIS).
At this stage, it is not clear how much of an effect these deployments will have on either conflict or on ISIS and its self-proclaimed caliphate, which spans large portions of Syria and Iraq.
In part, Obama’s moves were prompted by Russia’s armed intervention in Syria, which began in September to support the increasingly vulnerable regime of President Bashar Assad. Russia’s daily air strikes against rebel forces, mainly those backed by the United States and Saudi Arabia, emphasised the paucity and timidity of US operations.
Despite the insistence of Obama and his generals that there is no “mission creep”, the steady, almost indiscernible expansion of military involvement seems to indicate the US government may to be moving towards a more robust campaign against ISIS in particular.
The plan to send US Special Operations Forces into Syria is a clear shift in Obama’s long-held policy of avoiding entanglement in another Middle East quagmire and marks the first open deployment of US forces in Syria’s protracted war.
The planned Special Operations Forces contingent in northern Syria, where ISIS is concentrated, will be small — no more than 50 of the elite troops known in the military as “Snake Eaters” after their ability to operate in any environment.
Obama insists they will not participate in combat but will train and coordinate insurgent forces battling ISIS. However, given the nature of the increasingly complex, many-sided war, which is actually half a dozen conflicts rolled into one and where alliances change overnight, it seems almost inevitable that they will find themselves in combat.
Given the numbers involved, military analysts say the new deployment is far too small to make any discernible difference. “Deploying a handful of US Special Operations Forces to Syria will not change this situation significantly,” cautioned Frederic Hof, Obama’s one-time special adviser on Syria. “It’s a Band-Aid of sorts.”
Maybe so, but for some time US military sources say US Special Forces teams have been waging a secret campaign of assassinating “high-value targets”, including ISIS commanders, propaganda specialists and recruiters who entice Western Muslims to join the caliphate’s “holy war”.
These high-tech clandestine operations, controlled by a centre in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil, have been carried out across Iraq and Syria, in North Africa and as far south as Yemen. Among their victims was the ISIS deputy leader Haji Mutazz.
Obama took another step that was at odds with his hands-off strategy in the Middle East by abandoning his pledge to withdraw all US forces from Afghanistan when he announced that he will keep 9,600 US troops there until 2016 and leave 5,000 when his term ends in January 2017.
The plan to send Special Operations Forces to Syria is one of several steps to expand US operations against ISIS, which is the main US objective, rather than directly support rebels seeking Assad’s downfall.
The United States sent a squadron of 12 A-10C Thunderbolt ground attack aircraft, an ungainly looking jet affectionately nicknamed the “Warthog”, to the Incirlik airbase in southern Turkey on October 15th.
These jets are designed to carry out extremely close support strikes for ground troops and carry withering firepower. Obama also authorised the deployment of F-15 Eagle strike jets to the Turkish base.
Incirlik is only a half-hour’s flying time from the battlefields of northern Syria where ISIS is concentrated around its de facto capital of Raqqa, so the US jets should be able to sustain an intensive attack tempo.
Another proposal is to dispatch AH-64 Apache attack helicopters to neighbouring Iraq and deploy US advisers and probably ground-attack controllers embedded with Iraqi forces to direct US air strikes.
The US air campaign against ISIS, launched in mid-2014 after the jihadists captured the city of Mosul in northern Iraq in a blitzkrieg campaign, has not significantly weakened the jihadists.
US officials say their air attacks have killed as many as 12,000 militants, including several commanders but ISIS has replaced its losses with thousands of foreign fighters and remains a potent force.
The US moves coincide with a sharp increase in the supply of US-made TOW guided anti-tank missiles to rebel forces supported by Saudi Arabia and other Arab states opposed to Assad. These probably more than any other weapon helped rebel groups block regime forces in recent months in the rolling hills and plains of Hama and Idlib.
The missiles have not been supplied by the United States but largely by Saudi Arabia — with tacit US approval. The Saudis bought 14,000 of them from the United States in 2013.