By Barbara Slavin
Galvanized by the terrorist attacks in Paris, President Barack Obama is sending another 100-200 Special Forces troops to the Middle East to augment the fight against the group that calls itself the Islamic State (IS).
The decision, revealed Tuesday, is a cautious escalation characteristic of a president who campaigned on a pledge to withdraw U.S. combat troops from the Middle East and South Asia and who does not want to leave office embroiled in another major war.
The move predictably aroused warnings from the left of mission creep and from the right of insufficient action. But it should improve the accuracy of U.S. air attacks on IS leaders and supply lines and raise the morale of the predominantly Kurdish forces battling IS in both Syria and Iraq on the ground.
The U.S. action will bolster a growing international and regional coalition against IS as the diplomatic effort to find political solutions also intensifies. What is needed is more buy-in from U.S. Arab allies and Turkey, more support from the Europeans and more interaction between Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey about a plausible transition government for Syria.
Evidence is growing that Syrians and Iraqis living in IS-controlled areas are fed up with the group, which resembles a brutal extortion racket. More can be done to facilitate escape from these areas to zones controlled by anti-IS forces, such as Kurdish enclaves in northern Syria and Iraq, so IS has fewer people to perform crucial services and to tax.
A return to a large U.S. combat presence is not the answer, however. Iraqis – many of whom blame Washington for creating IS by deposing the regime of Saddam Hussein and botching the aftermath – have made clear that they do not want another U.S. invasion.
Testifying Tuesday before the House Armed Services Committee, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter had a better idea: having U.S. allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) contribute ground forces to the anti-IS effort. “The natural force in particularly the Sunni areas of Syria and Iraq would be Sunni Arabs,” Carter said.
Unfortunately, GCC states have been focusing their firepower on Yemen and even there have resorted to employing non-Arab mercenaries to carry on the campaign against Houthi rebels. The GCC states, as Carter noted, have emphasized buying expensive warplanes and air defenses over training competent soldiers. U.S. defense companies have eagerly supplied this expensive weaponry and should offer more training for ground forces as well.
Under the auspices of the United Nations, the world’s major powers and regional players have also launched an effort to find a political solution to the Syria war – a major factor in the rise and expansion of IS. Saudi Arabia is expected to host a meeting this month of Syrian opposition factions that could participate in negotiations with the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The Saudis should also offer to contribute troops to the anti-IS fight and to an eventual UN peacekeeping force for Sunni areas of Syria and Iraq.
Iran has been bearing the brunt of the fighting in both Iraq and Syria, although its focus in the latter arena has been on bolstering Assad and not combating IS. One hopeful indication of a willingness to cross sectarian lines in the interest of regional stability is news that Iran has signed off on a political compromise for Lebanon that would elevate a Christian close to Tehran to the presidency and a Sunni close to the Saudis as prime minister. This would end a dangerous political vacuum in a tiny country where Syrian refugees now account for more than a quarter of the population.
Turkey, a non-Arab Sunni power currently hosting the largest number of Syrian refugees, also needs to be a more pro-active member of the anti-IS coalition. In Paris earlier this week for a major climate conference, President Obama again told Turkish President Recep Tayipp Erdogan that Turkey must close a 60-mile stretch of border still being used by IS to bring in foreign fighters and supplies.
Obama also urged Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin not to allow the Turkish shoot-down of a Russian fighter jet last week to overshadow the campaign against IS. Turkey has returned the body of a Russian pilot but Erdogan has refused to apologize for attacking the plane, which strayed briefly into Turkish air space.
U.S. European allies, meanwhile, are stepping up their military involvement against IS in the wake of the Paris attacks. France has escalated air strikes and the German cabinet on Tuesday agreed to send reconnaissance planes, air tankers and a warship to the region, although not combat troops.
The British Parliament, meanwhile, was poised to approve air strikes on IS in Syria after a lengthy and passionate debate.
British Prime Minister David Cameron told legislators that they faced a stark choice in the aftermath of Paris: “Do we work with our allies to degrade and destroy this threat and do we go after these terrorists in their heartlands … or do we sit back and wait for them to attack us?”