Obama quietly ramps up war against ISIS

Friday 06/11/2015
US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter (L) and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Joseph Dunford Jr.

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.