Into the third Iraq war

Washington's strategy to defeat the Islamic State has the same deep flaws that marked earlier phases of the "war on terror".

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
18 September 2014

Barack Obama's address on the threat from the Islamic State on 10 September 2014, the eve of the 9/11 anniversary, represents a major statement of strategic policy. The United States will, said the president, “degrade and ultimately destroy” IS with “a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy”. This, moreover, will extend to air operations over Syria.

There is some realisation in Washington about the enormity of this task, given that the core of the Islamic State includes many angry and deeply resentful paramilitaries who fought US and British special forces in the dirty war in Iraq that lasted for more than three years from late 2004 (see "The thirty-year war, continued", 11 September 2014)

Yet the rapid and complex developments in the Middle East in the days since the speech also highlight the scale of what is being attempted. It has become clear, for example, that US forces in Iraq were already conducting far greater operations than most observers realised (see "Boots already on the ground as US mission in Iraq accelerates", The Conversation, 13 September 2014). By 14 September, another 475 US troops had been committed to Iraq, bringing the total to nearly 2,000, and an air-base was being established in the country's Kurdish-majority north-east, near Irbil. 2,749 sorties had been flown, including those providing 24/7 reconnaissance cover, and 156 airstrike had been carried out, directing 253 missiles and bombs at 212 targets. Obama was also reported to be ready to authorise targeted assassinations.

The Damascus factor

Syria as well as Iraq is at the centre of events. Here, Bashar al-Assad's regime is attempting to bend the conflict in its own interests in ways that have received less attention. The regime is increasing its efforts to destroy any opposition group not directly under the influence of the Islamic State, while minimising attacks on IS itself. By this means it hopes to present itself as a necessary ally of the west in a situation where IS increasingly becomes the only serious opposition. 

Damascus's recent actions include sustained air-attacks on the town of Talbiseh in Homs province, away from areas of Islamic State strength. These - aimed mainly at a relatively secular opposition militia - killed nearly fifty people and injured scores more. In addition, the extraordinary bombing of an underground bunker on 9 September destroyed the entire leadership of one of the Islamist paramilitary groups, Ahrar Al-Sham. No one has claimed responsibility but the detonation of a single huge explosion points to Syria's intelligence service.

The Washington fracture

The wider war is accelerating. Some US moves go well beyond protecting refugees and American personnel to supporting Iraqi troops in their own anti-IS operations south of Baghdad. There have been eighteen more US airstrikes since 10 September, and the Pentagon's delivery to the president of its military plans for an air-assault on IS in Syria is imminent. These are reported to go well beyond attacking paramilitary forces in the field to include command-and-control centres, logistics capabilities and infrastructure. This means sustained airstrikes over many weeks in additional to the escalation in Iraq.

Obama continues to insist that he will not commit US combat-forces to a new ground war, reiterating this in an address to troops at the headquarters of US central command in Florida. But this conflicts directly with the testimony of the chair of the US joint chiefs-of-staff, General Martin Dempsey. In his remarks at a hearing of the Senate's armed-services committee the previous day, he said: “At this point, [Obama’s] stated policy is that we will not have U.S. ground troops in direct combat… but he has told me as well to come back to him on a case-by-case basis” (see "Obama will consider ground troops...", Army Times, 16 September 2014) 

Dempsey's words point to an unstated but inevitable fact: that the very use of airpower over contested territory means that contingency plans and forces have to be continually available for action. This is because it is critically important that US military personnel can in no circumstances be allowed to be captured by IS paramilitaries. The prospect of captured crew being paraded and then beheaded, with the images immediately distributed across the world through the new social media, would be a nightmare for the Obama administration. Indeed, Dempsey replied to a question about whether he was willing to conduct search-and-rescue operations for a downed American pilot in Iraq or Syria with an unequivocal: "Yes and yes" (see "A downed U.S. aircraft in Iraq or Syria could mean ‘boots on the ground’", Washington Post, 18 September 2014)

More generally, military resources - helicopters, special forces and air cover - have to be continually available if anything goes wrong, whether in Iraq or Syria. They are already deployed in Iraq and the same will apply as the war extends into Syria. This is the hard reality of mission creep whatever Obama, the Pentagon or anyone else says (see "America and Islamic State: mission creeping?", 21 August 2014).

This evolving proces also carries the risk that support for the Islamic State grows, with the FBI already reporting an upsurge in recruits travelling to Syria (including from Turkey). The skills of IS propagandists in the field of new social media have a pronounced effect here (see "FBI: Islamic State Support on RIse Since US Airstrikes", Defense News, 17 September 2014).

The big picture

Amid these fluid and fast-changing events, one significant element may come to transcend everything else. Several previous columns in this series noted that during the second Iraq war from 2003, the US military - facing a rapidly developing insurgency - turned to Israel for help (see, for example, "After Saddam, no respite", [19 December 2003]  and "Between Fallujah and Palestine" [22 April 2004]). It was quite reasonable, from a US perspective, to turn to Israeli experience; but for the Islamist propagandists a decade ago it was an utter gift. Here, after all, was proof of the “crusader-Zionist conspiracy" against Islam.

It is striking then that Washington is now following the same path, with news that a US-Israel bilateral accord has been agreed to support coordinated use of Israeli and US air- power in Syria   The well-informed Barbara Opall-Rome, correspondent of the Defense News in Tel Aviv, says the accord dates back "more than a year ago" and relates to possible action against the Assad regime’s chemical-weapons arsenal. She writes: “defense sources said the agreement codified coordination procedures for scenarios where US and Israeli aircraft may need to operate simultaneously in Syrian airspace” (see Barbara Opall-Rome, "US-Israel Accord to Support Coordinated Air Ops in Syria", Defense News, 16 September 2014) 

The accord was shelved after the chemical weapons were removed in a lengthy process of collation and transfer. But Opall-Rome, citing an Israeli defence source, reports that it now provides “a relevant mechanism” in the new circumstances of a US-led air war against the Islamic State in Syria. If this proves the case, Islamic State propagandists will portray this - citing the recent deaths of well over 2,000 Palestinians in Gaza by what is seen in the region as a client state of Washington - as another “US/Israeli war against Islam”. It will, in short, be viewed with delight by the United States's most radical enemies (see "Islamic State: from the inside", 5 September 2014).

American air-strikes in Iraq are intensifying in frequency and involving many more targets,. War plans for Syria are about to go to the White House. Military chiefs are talking about the need to consider combat-forces on the ground. Special Forces are already in the field. Cooperation with Israel is as certain as can be. Yet this is barely six weeks into the third Iraq war. Many months, and no doubt years, are to come.

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