From Air War to Ground War: The Obama Administration’s Evolving Campaign Against ISIS and the Assad Regime
Matthew JAMISON | 24.06.2016 | OPINION

From Air War to Ground War: The Obama Administration’s Evolving Campaign Against ISIS and the Assad Regime

Over the course of the last year the level of criticism of the Obama administration’s Global Strategy against the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS) has increased in volume. From Republican and Democrat members of Congress and former Pentagon officials, the White House’s strategic approach to defeating ISIS has been questioned at best, lambasted at worst. The main thesis of the argument advanced by the Obama administration’s critics is that reliance on air power and targeted special-forces operations are not enough to destroy the Islamist insurgency. In November 2015, Michael Morell, the former deputy director of the CIA, told CBS’s Face the Nation, «I think it's now crystal clear to us that our strategy, our policy vis-à-vis ISIS, is not working». Even Democratic Presidential Nominee Hillary Clinton has joined a collection of Democrats breaking with the President over his ISIS/Syria policy. Secretary Clinton called for «a new phase» and said it was time to «intensify and broaden our efforts to smash the would-be caliphate and deny ISIS control of territory in Iraq and Syria».

Mrs Clinton has even advocated the creation of a no fly zone over certain parts of Syrian airspace in order to provide humanitarian corridors for aid to reach civilians. Now, the Obama administrations’ whole Syria policy, including its approach to the Assad regime, has been publicly rebuked by a group of 51 State Department diplomats. The dissenting diplomats using a mechanism called the Dissent Channel set up after the Vietnam War to allow junior, middle ranking diplomats the opportunity in secrecy to communicate concerns about US foreign policy directly to the Secretary of State, was intended to be just that, secret. Yet, the fact that the letter which called for a more interventionist, aggressive military campaign directly against the Assad regime and not just ISIS, made its way into the press shortly after it was sent, indicates a level of deep unease and frustration within the US diplomatic community and a push to foster a more robust military response to the Assad regime.

The level of criticism, particularly from fellow Democrats, at least regarding ISIS, appears to have sunk into the strategic thinking of the White House. The rules for airstrikes in Syria and Iraq have been relaxed to allow for more civilian casualties, and there are hints that more American ground troops may be deployed in the coming months. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter recently told CNBC: «We’re looking for opportunities to do more, and there will be boots on the ground, and I want to be clear about that». There are already American troops on the front lines with Iraqi soldiers in addition to security personnel and others assigned to specialized units. Some 200 Special Operations Forces soldiers have been tasked with rooting out members of ISIS’s leadership in Iraq and Syria. Officially, 3,650 US troops and private contractors are involved in the campaign against ISIS, however the number is closer to 6,000. A more conventional war against ISIS with «boots on the ground» rather than relying heavily on airstrikes, is already taking shape. The question which is of most immediate interest in terms of US foreign policy and the forthcoming Presidential election is, will a change in administration from Obama to Clinton usher in a new politico-military policy with regards to the Assad regime specifically and Syria as a whole? Clearly, there are some in the State Department who would like just that, and may already be laying the groundwork for the intellectual shift required when a new Government takes power in Washington DC. 

The key to understanding this burgeoning development in the anti-ISIS component of the Obama administration’s strategy over the past year is the appointment of Army Lt. General Sean MacFarland. Lt. General MacFarland is best known for securing the Iraqi city of Ramadi in 2007 and fostering the «Sunni Awakening» that aligned a collection of Sunni sheikhs with the US military in its fight against the forerunner to ISIS, al-Qaeda in Iraq. Retired Army Col. Peter Mansoor – who served as a former Senior Advisor to US military commanders in Iraq and currently lectures in American military history at Ohio State University – has opined that the appointment of MacFarland is significant and the implications it has for a possible enhanced ground campaign against ISIS. Mansoor commented that: «If this was going to be just an air campaign, it would make much more sense to have an Air Force officer in Baghdad and have him lead the charge. Putting Lt. General Sean MacFarland in charge of the war against ISIS I think shows that the Obama administration is thinking much more in terms of a holistic campaign that can include not just an air campaign but ground elements as well».

The shift in the Obama administration’s anti-ISIS strategy from a largely air power driven campaign to a more holistic approach with a greater element of «boots on the ground» is also signified following the expulsion of ISIS from Ramadi by US-supported Iraqi soldiers in December 2015. The likelihood that the Obama administration is moving closer to deploying an increased presence of American troops on the ground against ISIS is becoming more a reality with every passing day in Washington DC, indeed it has already been happening. Alongside an increased force of American soldiers, the Obama administration’s evolving anti-ISIS strategy has also continued to rely heavily on Iraqi security forces and a myriad of anti-Assad rebel opposition groups in Syria, which often have competing agendas, to invade and retake the two ISIS strongholds of Raqqa and Mosul. Several reports claim that the United States has participated in the expansion of an airfield in northern Syria, possibly to support Kurdish fighters against the so-called Islamic State. United States Central Command has denied this but a Pentagon official confirmed it, while recent airstrikes in Syria and Iraq point to the United States easing its rules of engagement, allowing for increased risk to civilians.

The simultaneous attacks in Iraq and Syria are a break from the Obama administration's previous «Iraq First» strategy inaugurated in the summer of 2014, which focused on first rolling back ISIS in Iraq and then taking the fight further and deeper into Syrian territory held by ISIS. The fight is also heating up beyond Iraq and Syria. In Libya, which has become ISIS's largest stronghold outside Syria and Iraq, the United States and members of the US led Global Coalition Against ISIS have increased reconnaissance flights and intelligence collection and are weighing options that could include airstrikes and Special Forces raids. In Afghanistan, the US military has carried out at least a dozen attacks, including airstrikes and raids, since President Barack Obama broadened the authority of military commanders there to begin striking ISIS's new Afghan branch.

The relaxation on rules governing civilian casualties is illustrated by a Sunday morning in mid-January, when the US-led coalition dropped 2,000-pound bombs on an ISIS cash storage facility in Mosul, Iraq, wiping out "millions" of the group's funds. Between five and seven people were killed in the attack and it was not clear from reports whether they were combatants. American officials told CNN that US commanders had been willing to consider up to 50 civilian casualties, in light of the value of the target – a significant departure from previously stated goals of zero civilian casualties. Previously, Mansoor says, «the standard that the coalition air campaign had to meet was so high in terms of not causing civilian casualties that they would often pass by targets of significance». The risk of «collateral damage» would now seem to be no impediment, which in itself represents an aggressive upping the ante in military doctrine and practice against ISIS. With a change in power from an Obama administration to a Clinton administration, a change in wider Syria policy could well be on the cards.

With regards to wider anti-ISIS efforts, the United States has been asking its allies in Europe to contribute more to the fight. In late January, Secretary of Defense Carter asked NATO members for «more special operations forces, more strike and reconnaissance aircraft, weapons and munitions, training assistance, as well as combat support and combat service support». Around the same time, President Obama’s newly appointed Special Envoy to the anti-ISIS Global Coalition, Brett McGurk who replaced General John Allen, became the first senior American official to visit Syria since 2012, spending two days in the northern Kurdish enclave of Rojava to «continue looking for ways to increase coalition pressure on ISIL», according to an unnamed official who spoke to the Washington Post. These moves could be replicated for a policy of directly confronting militarily the Assad regime and bombing it into a peace settlement.

McGurk also holds the title of Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq and Iran in the State Department. Previously he served President George W Bush as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Iraq and Afghanistan, and under President Barack Obama as Special Advisor to the National Security Council and Senior Advisor to the US Ambassador to Iraq. However, the evolution of the Obama administration’s strategy against ISIS, now entering in a more intensified and invigorated strategic phase, and the possibility of a direct US military intervention against the forces, infrastructure and assets of the Assad regime, won’t come cheap. The Obama administration is asking for more than $7 billion – a 35 percent increase – for the 2017 budget in the fight against ISIS. Despite the sudden military and financial push, Lt. General MacFarland has issued assurances that: «We are closer to the end of the beginning of this campaign…The beginning of the end would be when we get Raqqa back». Perhaps we are now witnessing the beginning of the end for the Obama policy of cautious non-intervention in terms of fire power against the Assad regime itself?

Just as the Russian military intervention of September 2015 helped bolster the position of the Assad regime, so too would an American intervention against the Assad regime seek to strengthen the hand of the non-ISIS opposition. This kind of policy shift however is fraught with potential dangers for US-Russian relations. By intervening heavily with American airpower in favor of the opposition the United States would be directly setting itself against Moscow and with it increasing the potential for a direct American-Russian military clash as well as deepening its entanglement in an Arab/Muslim Middle Eastern conflict. 

Tags: CIA  ISIS   Syria  al-Assad 

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