US Ground Troops in Syria: Unanswered Questions

On 20 January, President Barack Obama made his yearly State of the Union address, which touched upon multiple topics including the status of the American economy, renewable energy, and immigration reform. The most important foreign policy remark, however, was regarding his official request for the use of force against the militant group ISIL. Since 20 September, the United States has been leading a coalition of countries in a series of airstrikes against the group as well as serving in an advisory capacity on the ground in Iraq. President Obama has been carrying out this military operation under the pretext of an executive order, but with domestic critics increasingly questioning his use of the mandate, the President has decided to ask congress to formally authorize the campaign against ISIL. In his official request, however, President Obama has asked for the more than the ability to pursue a ‘systemic and sustained campaign of airstrikes against ISIL in Iraq and Syria.’[1] The President has asked Congress to consider the potential use of Special Forces. Fortunately for President Obama, it seems that over the past few months the general public has leaned toward an increased military presence against ISIL. A CBS poll last week showed that 57 per cent of all those asked would support the use of ground forces against the militant group and 65 per cent view the organization as a threat.[2] Is this, then, the start of another war in the Middle East? President Obama was quick to state: ‘the resolution we’ve submitted today does not call for the deployment of U.S. ground combat forces to Iraq or Syria’ and ‘I do not believe that America’s interests are served by endless war, or by remaining on perpetual war footing.’ Even so, the question remains: how will this be any different from the previous wars in the Middle East?

Currently, the biggest problem with the proposal for the fight against ISIL is its ambiguity and openness to interpretation. After the costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it would seem natural for a president who based much of his campaign on criticizing Bush regarding Middle East military operations to place certain restrictions on the use of force against ISIL. In his request, however, this does not seem to be the case. In addition to having the authority to use Special Forces, President Obama would also have the power to use ground forces in ‘limited circumstances, such as rescue operations involving U.S. or coalition personnel.’ While these guidelines seem compelling, President Obama never completely ruled out any type of military action. One does not need to look too far into the United States’ military history to understand that the deployment of so-called ‘military advisors’ and Special Forces are rarely the cut-off point for the use of force in a specific area.

Image courtesy of U.S. Marines © 2013, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of U.S. Marines © 2013, some rights reserved.

In addition to a reasonable amount of ambiguity regarding the level of force that will be used against ISIL, the three-year timeframe seems not only malleable, but extremely ambitious. ISIL, as a group, is extremely organized, well-funded, and has taken large swaths of territory in already unstable areas. They have been incredibly successful in recruiting from the areas that they have control of, and have quickly become engrained within the communities of northern Iraq and Syria. But, if the U.S. and coalition forces are able to destroy ISIL, what happens next? The reason that ISIL has been able to take control of vast amounts of territory is because of the power vacuum that exists in two states. With a civil war in Syria and an extremely weak central government and military in Iraq, ISIL has become the controlling force. Destroying them will only cause another deficiency of authority and the United States must decide if it is willing to become the controlling force until a local power is able to handle the situation.

Another issue that President Obama does not fully address in his request is the question of whom the United States will support in the fight against ISIL and once the conflict has ended.  The local resistance forces are extremely diverse, which means that when the time comes to assist the installation of a new government in Syria, the United States will need to choose who it supports very carefully if it wants to have self-sustaining peace in the region. A look at past mistakes in the area of the future ramifications of supporting resistance groups, however, does not instill confidence.

While ISIL does truly present a threat to the security of the United States and civilians in the Middle East, the use of ground forces in Syria and Iraq must be recalibrated by learning from past mistakes. President Obama must remember the arguments and promises that he made in his presidential campaign and understand the future ramifications of his actions. In his State of the Union Address, he encouraged Americans to ‘imagine if we broke out of these tired old patterns. Imagine if we did something different.’[3] Let us just hope that these words are not merely empty promises.