Obama’s move raises stakes with stealthy ‘boots on the ground’
BEIRUT - US President Barack Obama’s deployment of more special forces to Syria and Iraq to fight the Islamic State (ISIS) is deepening the US military involvement in its undeclared wars in the Middle East, a step seen by many as “mission creep”, the incremental commitment of troops that revives the bitter and humiliating memories of the American nightmare in Vietnam.
Obama, who pledged to wind down the wars in the Middle East when he was elected in 2008, announced on April 25th that he was sending an additional 250 US special operations forces to Syria, boosting the 50-man task force deployed in the north-east in 2015, to bolster the myriad Syrian rebel forces fighting ISIS.
The US military contingent in neighbouring Iraq is steadily growing despite Obama’s insistence that there would be “no boots on the ground” in these war zones, the key battlefront against ISIS. Current strength is around 5,000.
In Iraq, at least, it is evident that Obama’s build-up is largely stealthy. The US force limit in Iraq is just less than 4,000 but in recent weeks the Pentagon has moved in 200 US Marines to provide artillery support for the Iraqi Army’s efforts to mount an offensive to recapture the northern city of Mosul, seized by ISIS in June 2014.
Officially the Marines are “off the books” because they are in Iraq on “temporary duty”, which means they are not listed among forces formally assigned to Iraq. This, of course, raises speculation about just how many US military personnel are really in Iraq and Syria.
On top of this, the Obama administration is reported to have loosened the rules of engagement in Syria, giving US forces more leeway in operations against ISIS — something congressional Republicans have been pressing for — even though it increases the risk of civilian casualties.
These new rules are reported to have been in effect for some months and has meant a significant escalation in the US air campaign, particularly against ISIS in Mosul — a city of 1.5 million people where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed the Islamic caliphate in 2014 — and its environs.
Obama declared recently in London that “there’s no plans for ground troops” in Libya but ISIS has become a major player in the chaos that has gripped that country since NATO forces toppled Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.
US and Arab intelligence services report that ISIS is streaming new recruits to Libya, which some say ISIS sees as its new target for expansion as its territory in the Levant shrinks under mounting military pressure.
These reports note that several ISIS commanders have been deployed in Libya to oversee the growth of the ISIS holdings around the city of Sirte and 200km of Mediterranean coastline, exploiting the chaos within the pivotal oil-rich Maghreb state.
Whether this points to a possible ISIS withdrawal from the Levant is hard to say but it is unlikely the jihadists would surrender their main citadels in Mosul and Raqqa in north-eastern Syria without a fierce fight.
The Iraqi Army launched an offensive to recapture Mosul in late March but it quickly bogged down and the US reinforcements Obama is now sending are clearly intended to bolster that push, primarily through intelligence-gathering and tactical strikes to knock out ISIS command centres.
So far, there has been no concerted push on Raqqa, the de facto capital of the ISIS caliphate, although the city has been hammered by US and Russian air strikes, which clearly entail some coordination, for months.
But the deployment of more US special forces in northern Syria, where a US task force has a base on the Euphrates, indicates that if the warring anti-regime factions can ever manage to cooperate, a major push to recapture Raqqa might be possible.
US forces in Syria have so far concentrated on working with Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), military arm of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which have taken much of the northern border with Turkey.
But the Kurds have made no advances since February because Ankara does not want the Kurds to control the Syrian borderlands, which they see as the embryo of a Kurdish state, and the Americans are holding them back to avoid alienating Turkey, a NATO ally.
These political constraints and the incredibly complex nature of the multisided Syrian war have severely limited US options and will continue to do so. These conditions could inhibit the commitment of more US troops, for now at least. But the bottom line is that Washington cannot afford a stalemate in the Levant.
The current surge of large-scale fighting around the strategic city of Aleppo in central Syria amid stalled UN-sponsored peace talks in Geneva indicates that this region, including ISIS-held territory between Aleppo and the Euphrates, is likely to be the centre of renewed hostilities that could wreck a cessation of hostilities that began February 27th.
This, observed analyst Fabrice Balanche of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, will shift attention away from the Raqqa, “further delaying the Obama administration’s goal of pushing ISIS out of its ‘capital’.”