Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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From No Boots to Nightmare Fuel in Syria

by Micah Zenko
December 3, 2015

President Barack Obama waves as he boards Air Force One at Orly airport near Paris, France, on December 1, 2015. (Gaillard/Reuters)


Yesterday, while being interviewed by Norah O’Donnell of CBS News, President Barack Obama made a revealing statement about the careful manner in which U.S. military interventions are made. O’Donnell asked Obama if he was going back on his word by authorizing an expansion of U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria with the deployment of what the Pentagon calls a “specialized expeditionary targeting force.” The president earnestly replied, “You know, when I said no boots on the ground, I think the American people understood generally that we’re not going to do an Iraq-style invasion of Iraq or Syria with battalions that are moving across the desert.”

It is difficult to imagine that the American people misinterpreted Obama’s pledge of “no boots on the ground,” which he only made publicly sixteen times between August 2013 and July 2015. Moreover, it is unclear how he knows how Americans interpret his pledges. However, the obvious reason that all presidents and senior administration officials initially downplay the mission and role of U.S. military interventions is to catalyze domestic political support. This is because opinion polling of Americans reveals that they overwhelmingly do not support wars that they believe will be unilateral, long, bloody, and costly.

Obama was simply following the precedent of his predecessors by first downplaying a U.S. military commitment, then incrementally increasing that commitment and approving new missions, all while consistently claiming that there has been absolutely no mission creep and no violation of previous pledges. Each gradual accretion of personnel, weapons, and missions is announced in a “nothing new to see here” manner and packaged as a wise and minor policy adjustment that will bring the United States closer to achieving its strategic objective—in this case, to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the self-declared Islamic State.

When the first 275 U.S. troops were sent to Iraq in June 2014, Pentagon spokesperson Rear Adm. John Kirby pledged that the deployment “will be of a limited duration” and be “a discrete, measured, temporary arrangement to help us to get eyes on the ground, to figure out what’s going on and get a better sense of it.” Compare that to the latest deployment of two hundred special operations forces, which Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter described on Tuesday as “a force that will essentially do raids throughout the territory of Syria,” and  is intended “to make ISIL wonder…when they go to bed at night who’s going to be coming in the window?” A puzzling mission set where Navy SEALS are supposed to serve as nightmare fuel for jihadists.

Consider that in November 2014 Obama pledged that the sort of circumstance where U.S. troops might be deployed on the ground were, “If we discovered that ISIL had gotten possession of a nuclear weapon, and we had to run an operation to get it out of their hands.” Now “specialized” troops will conduct high risk operations to simply attempt to capture and kill a few more Islamic State members, of which there is apparently an inexhaustible supply. On Monday, an anonymous Pentagon official claimed that an estimated 23,000 Islamic State fighters have been killed in 8,600 U.S.-led coalition airstrikes over the past sixteen months. The following day, Secretary Carter was asked, “how many ISIL forces are there in Iraq and Syria?” He replied: “estimates in the neighborhood of 30,000.” That is the exact same estimate for the Islamic State’s size that the U.S. intelligence community provided sixteen months ago. Is this strategy working?

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by Peter Duveen

    The sudden emergence of ISIL is surprising, but whatever its cause, this group has provided a clear pretext for the United States to intervene militarily and carve out what could ultimately become a Sunni state that would inhibit an alliance among Iran, Iraq and Syria. Can it be ruled out that ISIS was created specifically by the Western states for this purpose? After all, the American CIA was said to be training insurgents in Jordan for years. Was ISIS the direct and deliberate outcome of this covert training program? If so, the so-called battle against ISIS pronounced by the Western states takes on a new dimension. That a surrogate force should be used to conquer an area and prep it for U.S. conquest would be a brilliant strategy, although one that is not easily concealed. What, then, would additional US troops be used for? To topple Assad, who the West asserts, against all common sense, is so great an evil that it was worth the lives of 200,000-plus Syrians and the destruction of much of Syria?

  • Posted by Tyler P. Harwell

    Yes, if the goal is merely to allay criticism for doing nothing, the strategy is working. No, if the goal is to eliminate ISIS. Emphatically no, if the goal is to put an end to the Syrian civil war, and to eliminate the conditions that allow ISIS to persist.

    Yesterday, President Obama averred that Russia’s goal in Syria is not to destroy ISIS. Neither is it his. Nor President Hollande’s. In fact, making war against ISIS is not the real purpose of any power with the means to do so presently circling over the carcass of Syria. It is instead, variously, a smoke screen, a false claim, an excuse, or a pretext for compettion, or a lack thereof, over the fate of Syria. It is, in sum, a military-political football.

    With Russia supporting Iranian forces that are advancing on the Syrian borders of both Turkey and Israel, soon, we will have greater problems to worry about than that cause which everyone loves to hate, destroying ISIS. We will lose interest in that enemy, and ISIS will benefit from the chaos to follow, as it already has from the disarray of American and NATO policy in relation to Syria.

    To finish ISIS, end the Syrian civil war. To do that, frustrate Russian and Iranian intentions in Syria. To do that, back up our Turkish and Israeli allies to the hilt. Encourage the Turkish army to occupy ISIS controlled territory in eastern Syria. Be willing to participate in, and support that endeavor. Likewise Israel, should it decide it necessary to take action in Syria. Meet the Russian challenge. Nothing will come from criticizing others for not being willing to put “boots on the ground” where ISIS is, while continuing to destroy Syria from the air. ISIS will adapt and thrive under those conditions. It is a recipe for disaster. Only our enemies, and those of peace, will love the result.

    Thank you.

  • Posted by Geoffrey Sea

    Micah Zenko misinterprets Obama’s intent. Obama truly believes his rhetoric that he’s doing something different and better compared to G. W, Bush. Obama has this idea that his highest obligation is to fulfill his 2008 campaign pledges to his own base voters. In this way he’s going to prove that he’s a real “progressive.”

    For that reason, he has consistently countermanded his military advisers, to an extent no past U.S. president has done. I don’t think it matters to Obama that his improvised strategies aren’t working. He has the idea that the Middle East is a cesspool and that Bush screwed it up beyond salvation. His pin-prick airstrikes and small crews of advisers and special forces were reluctant concessions to the clamor that he had to do “something.” But Obama will leave office true to his word that he did not engage the USA in another war.

    Too bad that war was declared on us. It will be up to the next president to fight back.

  • Posted by D'Allessandro

    Besides the snow job on deployments, the Obama administration unremittingly reminds his constituency and the world that all the anarchy in the Middle East was originated by the political-military overreach of former President George W. Bush tenure. It seems that this bill of goods routine should have an expiration date as pharmaceuticals do but it does not, so daily we continue hearing Orwellian doublespeak from the White House as Mr. Zenko points out. Fortunately for America his term will run out next year.
    Let’s hope that the next occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue crafts an strategy based on an accurate assessment of our contemporary adversaries rather than blaming Obama or utilizing a slew of verbal smoke screens to distort what has to be done to win the fight against the forces of radical Islam for it is evident that the misconceived policy of containment is not working,

  • Posted by jimvj

    IS has lost 40% of the territory it once held. It is about to lose Mosul.
    The source of much of heir wealth – oil – is being destroyed as wells and tankers are destroyed. Their hoards of cash have been blown up. Eye witness accounts prove that IS is finding it difficult to pay its soldiers. The optimism of establishing a “Caliphate” is tangibly diminished.

    All this with fewer US military killed/wounded than in a few hours under Bush in Iraq.

    And yet you carp? Shame on you.

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