US boots on the ground in Syria?

Friday 29/01/2016
US Vice-President Joe Biden (L) with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Istanbul

Is the statement by US Vice-President Joe Biden — that the United States would be putting boots on the ground in Syria to fight the Islamic State (ISIS) — a change of heart and mind as far as US foreign policy is con­cerned?
Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, President Barack Obama’s administration has been adamant that there would be no US troops deployed in Syria. Now the Obama administration is having second thoughts. Is this a last-minute attempt by Obama to make amends for his lack of interest in a turbulent Middle East?
Obama, who leaves the White House next January, is concerned — as all presidents before him were — about his legacy. While Obama has scored some victory points domestically, there is nothing major on foreign policy that his administration can claim, such as president Jimmy Carter orchestrating the Camp David accords that ushered in a lasting peace between Egypt and Israel.
But for Obama, as it was for Bill Clinton, attempts at rectifying the Middle East conflict come too little, too late. Similarly, Obama must certainly feel the pressure mounting as each day brings the inauguration of the next president closer.
Is the United States serious about sending troops to fight in Syria? Rumours have it that the 101st Airborne Division, one of the crack units of the US Army, is preparing for the task.
The statement the vice-president made after he met Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul took care to underline that US and Turkish forces would deploy to fight ISIS and would not be involved in the Syrian civil war otherwise.
Additionally, Obama may feel pressured to act given that Russia has a firm foothold, which includes air bases and naval facilities, in Syria. Now that the Russians are there, it is highly unlikely they would ever leave the eastern Mediterranean.
In essence it would be hard to detect any policy change given that there was never any clear-cut policy on Syria to begin with. The Obama administration seemed to randomly pick out an opposition group from the plethora of forces opposed to Syrian President Bashar Assad, only to realise a short while later that it was the wrong group. Some Syrian opposition groups wanted to appear sympathetic to the United States so as to receive training, weapons and financing.
With the peace talks possibly restarting and the possibility of a major offensive by the United States and Turkey, is there a glimmer of a light at the end of the tunnel? On the one hand, if Syrian peace talks succeed, this may be the beginning of the end of the war but if they fail, would the United States and Turkey intervening militarily bring an end to the conflict?
That is unlikely to happen. There are serious doubts the peace talks will go anywhere given the disparity among the opposition forces. And, despite the United States maintaining that any forces committed to the Syrian theatre of operations are there to fight ISIS, there is no telling once on the ground how things will turn out.
Turkey has also stated that it would be sending troops to fight ISIS, which Ankara supported not too long ago. But Turkey has its own agenda and it keeping tabs on the Kurds.
Truth be told, chances of a diplomatic solution to the conundrum in Syria are few and far between as the numerous opposition parties spend as much time fighting each other as they are fighting their common enemy, the current regime in Damascus.
Nobody in this conflict seems to be playing straight. Just as the Syrian factions supported by the United States would not hesitate to turn their backs on the Americans, so, too, would the United States drop them like a hot potato should a better opportunity knock at the door. The trouble, however, is you don’t know who is knocking on the door until it’s too late.

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