After six years of trying to extricate itself from the Middle East, President Obama indicated how emphatically that effort failed when on September 10 he became the fourth consecutive American president to officially bomb Iraq. America’s decision to seriously escalate its military operations against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) comes months after the militant outfit violently emerged as the one of the most formidable and terrifying groups in the Middle East. The recent massacres of religious minorities coupled with the high-profile murders of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff — all of it filmed and put on YouTube — convinced Obama, who up until now had been resisting any form of American involvement, to step up American air strikes and military cooperation with local groups and governments.
To be fair to the president, none of the options he had were any good. After decade-long occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, there is little domestic consensus in a war-weary nation for yet another protracted military operation that has already exacted so much from the US in both human and economic terms. Obama also admitted that as awful as ISIS is, it hardly poses a direct threat to American national security. Having (rightly) been accused of a history of meddling in the Middle East, doing nothing was also politically expedient for the US.
But doing nothing is exactly what has gotten the US — and the Middle East — to this current crisis. The US ignored the warning bells that started ringing very early in the Syrian Civil War that large sections of the rebel groups are getting radicalised. The US also ignored the tyranny and oppression with which the Maliki-led Shia government ruled Iraq, alienating and antagonising its Sunnis. The US didn’t arm moderate rebel groups in Syria in fear of the weapons falling into the wrong hands (the ISIS ended up taking over more American arms left behind by the exiting forces than they ever could have by leaks in the Syrian rebel camps). Had the US decided to expand its aerial campaign back in 2011, the crisis — and its consequences — would definitely not have been so acute.
But how does this belated decision affect the Middle East now? Obama repeated his avowal not to commit ground troops, which is sensible. This means that the campaign will look more like its operations in Yemen, Somalia, — and Pakistan to an extent — rather than Iraq or Afghanistan, but wars against militant groups like ISIS are definitely not won from the air. They never have been.
ISIS militants are not hiding in remote areas, but actually manage and rule over large population centres like Mosul, Raqqa, and Tikrit; bombing large cities and population centres is not quite the same as inaccessible villages and the US cannot bomb them with the impunity with which they bombed Fata, for instance. The ISIS is also better equipped, better prepared, and better funded than its extremist competitors; it will bide its time and weather the storm, given that the US is looking to keep its operations at a minimum anyway. But even if the air strikes are as effective as the United States hopes they will be, drone strikes and assassinations are only effective in the short term; the amount of al Qaeda ‘number 3s’ that the US has taken out verges on the farcical. Air strikes hardly do any damage to operations or organisational infrastructure.
Questions also need to be asked about how American intervention will tilt the balance of power in Syria in particular. Obama has gone back from saying ‘Assad must go’, speaking of ‘red lines’ that were crossed and then crossed again. Surely an American campaign against the ISIS will only strengthen Assad’s control over Syria. This president is not the cavalier, trigger-happy buffoon that his predecessor was. But when it comes to the Middle East, Obama does not seem to be doing much better than him.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 15th, 2014.