With President Barack Obama’s decision to send 450 troops to Iraq at its request, in addition to 3,100 already there for training and advisory roles, is it Mission Creep for an America desperate to see an end to its military role in the Middle East, except to succour Israel and its Arab allies? It was the emergence of the Islamic State (IS), or its variant ISIS, that got US military aircraft back in action over the Iraqi and Syrian skies.
President Obama had been bending over backward to ensure that his military could say goodbye to the Middle East in his declared “pivot” to Asia. Even when the Syrian regime had crossed his declared “red line” by using chemical weapons, he hesitated and grasped the Russian proposal to get Syrian chemical weapons out. Indeed, his motto has been to resist Mission Creep.
Yet today we see the dilemmas being presented by a wily enemy who, despite the bombing runs, refuses to surrender or die. In Syria, the Western aim of getting rid of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad gave the IS an opportunity. It got the better of both the West-supported moderate opposition and a weakened Assad regime to impose its own rule over large stretches of the country declaring a caliphate under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, reportedly injured in a targeted attack. And a year ago the IS captured Iraq's second city Mosul, and most recently, Ramadi.
Not only has the IS proved to be a media savvy organisation but it has also used brutality mixed with charm to strike fear and obedience in its new subjects. Even more surprisingly, it has through a major internet campaign and sympathisers lured many young people from around the world, including the West, to fight for its cause in Syria and Iraq.
With the persistent aerial bombing of IS targets, it was assumed that the Islamic State would feel the heat and its advances would be halted. It has had to vary its fighting routine while making gains. There are, of course, differences between the Syrian and Iraqi theatres.
In Syria, President Assad's side has suffered by US air strikes and non-IS opposition fighters' advance to allow the IS to gain territory over large abandoned areas to set up their caliphate. Aiding the President in the military field are fellow Shia Iran and in diplomacy Russia.
The picture is starkly different in the Shia-dominated administration of Iraq, with both Iran and the Western alliance led by the US fighting the IS. Indeed, the Shia militias, rather than the Iraqi army, have proved the doughtier fighters posing another dilemma for Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. Most of the fighting is taking place in the Sunni-dominated regions. Sunnis are discriminated against by the new dispensation in Baghdad. Each time Shia militias are in the forefront, more Sunni tribes go sullen or join the IS.
Against this background, American dilemmas grow by the day. One suspects that the IS would dearly like to draw US ground troops back into the operation, with Washington desperately seeking Arab ground support. In fact, even as the drama is being played out in the Syrian-Iraqi theatre, a Saudi Arabia-led coalition has been striking at Houthi targets in Yemen from air for months to stem the Shia sect taking over the adjoining country.
These developments have led to a measure of gloom in the region. The next US presidential election is already casting its long shadow on American politics, with President Obama motivated by leaving his legacy in his final second term. Can a President who came to office vowing to take American troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan afford to leave office with his country's troops again embroiled in the Middle East?
On the other hand, despite the political compulsions, the US cannot afford to walk away from a Middle East on the boil. President Obama's hope, therefore, is to prevaricate, stiffen Iraqi resolve through new training and toughening programmes to the extent possible co-opt Sunni tribal chieftains. In faraway Australia, Prime Minister Tony Abbott has sounded his own bugle of alarm by suggesting that the IS has global ambitions and is a “death cult”.
For the more cynical, there is a déjà vu air about the present happenings. The most powerful military in the world seems unable to master the art of subduing modern defiance. The unwise decision of the last President Bush to invade Iraq will go down in history as a war fought on wrong premises to achieve a string of unattainable objectives. In the bargain, the US presented Iran with the handsome gift of a majority Shia-led Iraq.
The question to ask is whether the incremental measures President Obama has chosen will lead to peace on reasonable terms. Syria is in its fifth year of civil war, with millions living as refugees in neighbouring countries and as displaced people internally. The Shia-allied Alawite faith of President Assad is in minority in a Sunni-majority country with its cast of extremists under the banner of the IS and different stripes of more moderate Sunni-based insurgents. But President Assad has powerful friends in the shape of Iran, the Hezbollah movement in neighbouring Lebanon and the diplomatic support of Russia. The new Cold War between Russia and the West makes cooperation in Syria more difficult.
In Iraq, the twin objectives of the US are not only to try to defeat the IS but also to ensure that the country does not break up into three parts, Shia, Sunni and Kurdistan, which already has a large measure of autonomy and whose people have distinguished themselves as fierce fighters. One thing is clear, it is difficult to forecast the time frame for the mess to clear and the outcome of the division of the Ottoman Empire by Britain and France in 1916 the IS is so dramatically seeking to erase.
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