Syria, another 'all-American' war?

The retreat of Washington's allies from the anti-ISIS campaign has disturbing echoes of its Iraq experience. 

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
12 November 2015
Soldier watches a blaze in Iraq, 2008. David Marshall. The US Army/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Soldier watches a blaze in Iraq, 2008. David Marshall. The US Army/Flickr. Some rights reserved.The United States's campaign against ISIS in Syria is acquiring a worrisome aspect even beyond any strict measure of military success. For the entire operation is becoming ever more an 'American' war. More alarming still, the precedent here is Washington's experience in Iraq 12 years ago.

In March 2003, the United States started the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq at the head of a sizeable coalition. That said, only one country – Britain – provided a substantial number of ground troops. This initially mattered little, because many other countries helped in smaller ways and in any case the Saddam Hussein regime collapsed within three weeks.

Three weeks later, George W Bush delivered his “mission accomplished” speech, Paul Bremer was appointed civilian overlord of an apparently recovering Iraq, and the Bush administration could report back to the US population that order had been restored after the horrors of 9/11.

Within weeks, things looked very different. An urban insurgency developed and the US army and marines found themselves at the heart of increasingly violent confrontations with determined rebels, taking serious casualties and facing up to a paramilitary opposition using tactics which they were not trained well enough to confront.

By July 2003, the Pentagon was recognising the need to get another country to commit sizeable forces to relieve the pressure. The immediate requirement was a reinforced army division, perhaps 17,000 troops, to be made available to replace a US division in the relatively quieter parts of north-east Iraq. The US forces could then be reassigned to help counter the insurgency in Baghdad and central Iraq. A vital bonus would be if that country was not from the west, so that Washington really could claim that it was leading a global, or at least broad-based, coalition.

The obvious candidate was India. It had a large and well-trained army that could spare such a force, and a nationalist government led by prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee who could see the value to India of acting (and being seen as) a major world power.

The problem was that Indian public opinion was, by consistent and large majorities, against any such involvement. Vajpayee was therefore in difficulty, not least because his party was facing key state elections that autumn and a general election in 2004. Vajpayee reluctantly declined the request. The ground combat in Iraq became more and more of an 'American' war, with only the loyal Tony Blair providing anything more than small-scale support (see "Far from home, alone", 17 July 2003).

A lone crusade

The closeness to recent developments in Syria, even to the extent of Washington's desire for Britain to be involved, is striking.

The United States always hoped that its extension of the air war in Iraq to assaults on ISIS in Syria would be backed by other states, including from the Middle East. In the event the great majority of the air attacks (around 95 percent) continued to be undertaken by the US airforce and US navy. But Washington did achieve quite a lot of diplomatic progress, in that seven other countries had become involved by the end of 2014: Australia, Canada and France among its western allies, and Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates from the region. In addition, several countries were involved in the air war against ISIS in Iraq, including Belgium, the UK and Denmark.

Barack Obama's administration could thus claim to be leading a truly international coalition in its aim to “degrade and destroy” ISIS – even though the performance of the overall military campaign is a matter of great controversy. Far more significant, though, is the manner in which so many of the coalition partners have quietly opted out of the air war.

This applies both to Iraq, where Belgium and Denmark have ended their involvement, and (more remarkably) to Syria. From February to September 2015, four states – Bahrain, Jordan, the UAE and Saudi Arabia – terminated their participation in the anti-ISIS air operations in Syria. Moreover, the incoming Justin Trudeau government in Canada has announced that it would fulfil an election pledge to pull out its CF-18 strike-aircraft. France and Australia continue to be involved, but their participation is minimal in terms of airstrikes in Syria (as opposed to Iraq).

It is likely that David Cameron is under pressure to bring in the UK. This may do much to explain the unusual step where the chief of the defence staff, General Sir Nicholas Houghton, criticised the lack of British support for the United States in Syria (and upheld the country's nuclear-weapons policy in a manner bound to cause controversy). The fact that the comments were made on one of the BBC’s main political-affairs programmes, and thus dominated news coverage for several days, made the incident even more significant. 

The stakes are therefore high for Cameron to try and get a positive result in parliament. Yet this still looks unlikely given the opposition from many of his own MPs. Russia's entry into the air war in Syria reinforces their stance, as it has already influenced the Australian government's decision to hold back on its Syrian operations.

Syria's war is then becoming more of an 'American' one. That makes it resemble Iraq in 2003, but with an added complication: the other most heavily involved state is not a close ally like Britain, but Russia!

The one party that will be happy with this development is most likely ISIS. The movement already exploits the influence in Syria of 'apostate' regimes from the region. But it accrues far greater propaganda benefit from the involvement of the United States (the “far enemy”) and of Russia (with its large Muslim population). Both states burnish ISIS's claim to be the true guardian of Islam against determined “crusader” attack. British involvement would be better still, given the potential for recruits from alienated young Muslims. But even ISIS can’t have everything.

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