President Obama has become the fourth successive US president to order air strikes on Iraq and the first to launch them on Syria. It is a remarkable submission to history for a president whose candidacy in 2008 was largely defined by his opposition to America’s recent past.
The Obama administration would argue that the current mission is different from previous campaigns, primarily because of the manner in which the US now projects its military power abroad. Boots have been replaced with drones and ever more mechanisation. Such an approach evidently assuages public concerns over sacrificing more western lives for seemingly elusive stability in the Middle East.
Yet this is true only to an extent. The marked increase in drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen under Obama has destroyed much of al-Qaeda’s core leadership. While drones can eliminate leaders, however, they cannot dismantle terrorist networks. The unpicking of al-Qaeda’s global network, as demonstrated by the killing of Osama Bin Laden, was the result of conventional military deployment.
In this context, it is hard to imagine how Islamic State (IS, formerly known as Isis) will be defeated with air strikes alone. The group controls swathes of land, has an army of tens of thousands and possesses highly sophisticated weapons. Were aerial bombardment enough to crush IS, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad would have put an end to the rebellion long ago.
For now, Obama has limited himself to ordering air strikes while ruling out a more vigorous military response. The perils of such an approach are many. There is the danger of mission creep – but there also broader issues that have been poorly understood.
The US risks amplifying the message that IS and similar groups have been trying to spread for years. When the uprising in Syria first began, thousands of civilians were abandoned to Assad’s regime. He tortured and slaughtered them with impunity and practised the worst form of dog-whistle politics.
Many Syrians called for intervention to tip the balance. Instead, as law and order broke down and instability increasingly took hold, jihadists moved in to fill the power vacuum. The west, they told Syrians, doesn’t care about the deaths of Sunni Muslims. This was a repeat of the Bosnia narrative, which peddled the view that European governments were indifferent to the plight of Balkan Muslims.
Many Sunni Muslims in Syria have similarly questioned the west’s concern over the fate of minorities in their country. What about the majority, they ask? They were abandoned to the regime and Obama was stirred into action only in defence of the Yazidis.
Although the US president has stopped short of saying so explicitly, we are left to understand that Assad is the lesser of two evils. So it is that discreet diplomatic channels have been reopened to the Assad regime. That much is clear from a statement issued by Lieutenant General William Mayville, a Pentagon spokesman, who confirmed that Syrian air defence systems were “passive” during US raids on IS targets in Syria.
We have been here before. Months before the 2011 uprising, Vogue showered encomium on the Syrian first lady, Asma al-Assad, describing her as “a rose in the desert”. The American academic David W Lesch similarly described Bashar al-Assad as “the new lion of Damascus”. The authoritarian bargain that the Syrian president offered seemed to enchant western observers. Asma al-Assad launched civic empowerment projects for children, the Four Seasons opened new hotels in Damascus and laws were passed allowing for casinos. Yet, behind the scenes, it was business as usual. President Assad continued to crush all dissent, while providing a vital air route for Iranian intelligence to supply Hezbollah.
Those clambering to support Assad should remember just how much blood of our troops he is responsible for. In the last Iraq war, Syria provided the primary thoroughfare for foreign jihadists wanting to fight western coalition forces. Syrian intelligence not only turned a blind eye to the fighters passing through the country but also actively supported their efforts, releasing a number of senior jihadists from prison.
Obama’s initial inaction helped to create the conditions in which the jihadists could flourish. Now, he has reacted with hasty half-heartedness and delivered the worst of both worlds. This confrontation with IS will almost certainly extend beyond the end of Obama’s presidency in 2017, after which he will be able to repent at leisure.