Exclusive: President Obama’s plan to dispatch up to 50 Special Forces troops into northern Syria may be a bid to appease Official Washington’s war hawks but it presents a serious risk of “mission creep” if those soldiers and their trainees come under fire in the complicated proxy war, writes Daniel Lazare.
By Daniel Lazare
When Russian President Vladimir Putin opted in late September to intervene in Syria’s horrendous civil war, President Barack Obama seemed so taken aback that a few hopeful souls wondered if the shock might cause him to rethink his failed strategy of toppling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad while waging war on Al Qaeda’s Al Nusra and the Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh).
After all, attacking an enemy and its prime opponent never made much sense to begin with. So why not seize the opportunity to shore up Syria’s besieged government even pressing President Assad and his political opponents to work together while concentrating on defeating the terrorists? With more security, democratic elections might be possible, letting the Syrians take control of their own future.
But last week’s decision to insert 50 Special Forces troops in northern Syria suggests President Obama is veering off in another direction altogether. Militarily, the operation makes no more sense than anything else the administration has done in Syria.
After years of supporting so-called “moderate” rebels who usually turn out to be allied with Al Qaeda, Al Nusra’s parent organization, or guilty of atrocities in their own right the Obama administration is now pinning its hopes on a group calling itself the Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition of Kurdish militias plus Arab fighters formerly tied up with Al Nusra.
But after spending ten days with the group, The New York Times’s Ben Hubbard concluded that “so far it exists in name only,” lacking both a flag and an organized command structure. Kurdish members, he found, look down on their ill-disciplined Arab partners while the Arabs worry about the Kurds’ ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., which the U.S., Turkey and others designate as “terrorist.”
This is the rag-tag outfit that 50 lucky Special Ops troops have been given the task of whipping into a credible anti-ISIS force. But Obama’s micro-invasion is worth taking seriously as a form of mission creep that could all too easily lead to an even greater disaster.
Last week, Ã¼ber-hawk Sen. John McCain subjected Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter to a nasty tongue-lashing. “Right now as we speak,” the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee declared, “Russian aircraft are bombing moderate Syrian forces in Syria, while we have de-conflicted. Do you believe we should be protecting those young people?”
The U.S. does indeed have “an obligation to protect,” Carter replied, but so far such groups “have not come under attack by either Assad’s forces or Russia’s forces.”
This is contradicted by media reports stating that Russia has, in fact, bombed groups supported by the United States. But right or wrong, Carter’s response begs an all-important question: what happens when not only such forces come under attack, but the American Special Ops soldiers with them? Under pressure from people like McCain, how can the administration resist firing back?
A Larger Commitment
On Nov. 4, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, whose views often reflect the opinions of the U.S. intelligence community, noted that the dispatch of fewer than 50 Special Forces troops may not sound like much but “this is a significant commitment. The U.S. troops will need air support not just to bomb the Islamic State, but for resupply, rescue if they get in trouble, and perhaps to enable the cycle of intelligence-driven ‘night raids’ that was so devastating in Iraq.” Exactly — that is just what mission creep is designed to do, i.e. to clear the way for further escalation.
To make matters even more complex and risky the warplanes of three countries are buzzing through Syrian air space, not counting the Syrians themselves. U.S. jets are bombing ISIS; Russian jets are bombing the rebels in general; Israeli jets recently pounded Hezbollah targets in the south. Meanwhile, Turkey has confirmed shelling Kurdish targets in the north.
This is crazy. So how did a sensible fellow like Obama get himself into such a mess?
There are a number of possible explanations. One is to hang it all on a president who is so compulsively middle-of-the-road that he can’t say no to pro-war foreign-policy “experts” intent on wreaking havoc across much of the globe. Another is to pin the blame on a foreign-policy establishment that has insisted on painting itself into a corner on this issue rather than searching for more fruitful alternatives.
A third involves the exigencies of U.S. imperialism. Napoleon once wrote that a retreat is the most difficult military maneuver, and Obama has spent much of his time in office seemingly proving him right. There is no question that Obama has worked hard at paring back U.S. military obligations.
Obama has cut troop levels in Afghanistan by 90 percent since the peak in September 2010 and has cut deployments in Iraq even more drastically from 150,000 to around 3,500. He has trimmed military spending by some 15 percent. To be sure, the U.S. still spends more than the ten next biggest powers combined. But Jane’s Defense forecasts that by 2020 it will only outspend the next five. That may not sound like much, but it represents a sea change in terms of power politics.
Particularly in the Middle East, the cuts have led to a power vacuum that the President has tried to fill through what might be called a Bernie Sanders policy of shifting the burden onto Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf states. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Sanders’s Screwy Mideast Strategy”]
On one level, this appears to make sense. Since 2005, members of the Gulf Coordinating Council Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and the Saudis have been on a buying spree, in real terms doubling or even tripling military expenditures. Collectively, the GCC is now the third biggest military spender in the world, behind China but well ahead of France, Germany and the United Kingdom. So why not take advantage of such prowess to fill the gap?
The temptation is all but irresistible. But there’s a price. The more dependent the U.S. grows on the Gulf states, the more beholden it becomes to their very different political agendas, which are both Sunni fundamentalist — and hence anti-Shi’ite — and deeply hostile to the few remaining secular regimes in the region as well.
Libya shows how this works. Determined to limit American involvement, Obama leaned heavily on Qatar, the UAE and Bahrain to contribute to the effort to overthrow Gaddafi in 2011. The Gulf states were eager to comply.
Double Talk on Freedom
Welcoming Qatari leader Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani to the White House that April, a grateful Obama told the press: “We would not have been able I think to shape the kind of broad-based international coalition that includes not only our NATO members but also includes Arab states without the Emir’s leadership. He is motivated by a belief that the Libyan people should have the rights and freedoms of all people.”
This was nonsense, of course. Al-Thani is an absolute autocrat with zero interest in freedom. Obama admitted as much just a few hours later at a Democratic fundraiser. “Pretty influential guy,” he said of the Emir. “Now, he himself is not reforming significantly. There’s no big move towards democracy in Qatar. But you know part of the reason is that the per capita income of Qatar is $145,000 a year. That will dampen a lot of conflict.”
It was an amazing comment, but soon Obama’s cynicism got the better of him. Within weeks of endorsing Qatar’s plans to supply the anti-Gaddafi forces with weapons, the White House began receiving reports that machine guns, automatic rifles and ammo were going to jihadis bent on undermining the country’s secular transitional government.
Mahmoud Jibril, the new prime minister, complained, but there was nothing the U.S. could do. “They march to their own drummer,” a former senior State Department official said of the Qataris. Libya quickly descended into anarchy as heavily armed militants rampaged across the country. Rather than a democracy, Qatar’s only interest was in installing an Islamist government much like its own.
This is why U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens would die in Benghazi in 2012 not because he didn’t have Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s email address, but because she and others in the administration had sown the seeds of chaos by inviting a right-wing Sunni government to intervene in the overthrow of a secular regime.
Yemen is also an example. As early as 2009, American diplomats began firing off cables warning that Saudi Arabia was fueling growing sectarianism by funding militant Sunni Wahhabist clerics who were causing Houthi Shi‘ites to feel “increasing threatened” in their own country.
Ambassador Stephen Seche wrote that by foisting more military aid on the anti-Houthi government than it could handle, Riyadh was contributing to growing instability. Inevitably, the superabundance of guns would “find their way into Yemen’s thriving grey arms market,” he said. “From there, it is it is anyone’s guess as to where the weapons will surface, potentially even in the hands of extremist groups bent on attacking Western interests in Yemen and ironically, Saudi Arabia and neighboring countries in the Gulf.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Climbing into Bed with Al-Qaeda.”]
It was intelligent advice, but unfortunately it had no impact. Given its growing dependence on the Saudis, the U.S. was not inclined to second guess. If Riyadh said Sana’a needed more arms, then who were the Americans to say otherwise?
When the Houthis at last rose in revolt in January 2015 and the Saudis responded two months later by launching nightly bombing raids on Yemen, the United States was unable to say no. With four of the other five GCC members joining in the assault Oman was the lone holdout Obama felt he had no choice but to go along by providing technical backup and naval support.
With that, the Obama administration found itself party to a war by the richest countries in the Middle East against the very poorest. In his effort to reduce U.S. military commitments by relying more on the Saudis, Obama found the Saudis dragging him into yet another war. By joining in an anti-Shi’ite jihad, it also found itself helping “Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” one of the network’s more dangerous affiliates, to extend its hold in Yemen.
The Syrian Catastrophe
But it is in Syria where this confused logic has gone to the greatest extremes. Syria is a highly fractured society in which the secular Baathist government has been engaged in an on-again, off-again war with the Muslim Brotherhood since the mid-1960s. The regime’s inability to overcome such fragmentation is its greatest failure. But if the United States was really intent on a positive outcome, it would call on all sides to put sectarianism aside and work on resolving their disputes democratically.
Instead, it has done the opposite. In 2006, with the Baathist regime clearly in the Bush/Cheney crosshairs, then-U.S. Ambassador William V. Roebuck fired off a memo, made public by Wikileaks, urging Washington to “play on Sunni fears of Iranian influence” even though reports of Iranian Shi‘ite proselytizing were “often exaggerated.”
Said Roebuck: “Both the local Egyptian and Saudi missions here (as well as prominent Syrian Sunni religious leaders) are giving increasing attention to the matter and we should coordinate more closely with their governments on ways to better publicize and focus regional attention on the issue.”
This strategy was pouring gasoline on the fire, but who cared? As then-Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz told General Wesley Clark, “We’ve got about five or ten years to clean up those old Soviet regimes Syria, Iran, Iraq before the next great superpower comes on to challenge us.” Bashar al-Assad would have to be overthrown by hook or by crook.
Once the Arab Spring struck Syria with gale-force winds in 2011, the U.S. responded by coordinating with its Gulf allies to support the anti-Assad forces. Amid a growing civil war, the New York Times revealed in June 2012 that the CIA was working with the Muslim Brotherhood to channel arms funded by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to deserving rebels.
Two months later, the Defense Intelligence Agency issued a report stating that Salafists, the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda all fiercely anti-Shi‘ite were the main driving force behind the anti-Assad uprising, that they were seeking to establish a “Salafist principality in eastern Syria,” and that they were attempting to drum up an anti-Shi‘ite jihad among “the rest of the Sunnis in the Arab world.”
The report added that this is “exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition” i.e. the West, Turkey and the Gulf states “want in order to isolate the Syrian regime” and counter influence from Iran.
In October 2014, Vice President Joe Biden told students at Harvard’s Kennedy School that “the Saudis, the emirates, etc. were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war [that] they poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of military weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad except the people who were being supplied were Al Nusra and Al Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.”
No doubt, the administration would have preferred that the Saudis fund secular forces instead. But by forcing Biden to telephone officials in Ankara, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh to apologize for letting the cat out of the bag, Obama made it clear that he would not push the dispute too far.
U.S. tolerance even applies to the Islamic State. In yet another diplomatic cable made public by Wikileaks, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton complained in December 2009 that “it has been an ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority” and that hence “donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”
Last month, a New York Times editorial complained that donations were continuing to flow, this time to the Islamic State, from the Saudis as well as from Qatar and Kuwait. If the administration really wanted to lean on the Saudis in the course of those half-dozen years, presumably it would have gotten them to shut down such conduits. But it needs the Saudis too much to make a fuss.
This conundrum is what gives Obama that deer-in-the-headlights look. He knows what he has to do in the Middle East stop trying to overthrow Assad and concentrate on defeating Al Nusra and ISIS instead but he is unable to do so for fear of alienating crucial “allies.” He knows what medicine he needs but is too weak to take it.
On Thursday, The Wall Street Journal reported that Russian intervention had “sparked a debate within the Obama administration” about whether to continue aiding the rebels. “Some Obama administration and military officials advocated abandoning the rebel units and using the Russian intervention as an opportunity to shift the U.S. mission entirely to fighting Islamic State, which they argued was the paramount threat,” reported Adam Entous, citing unnamed U.S. officials.
But opponents countered that “the U.S. had an obligation to support the Russian-targeted units, who fared better on the battlefield under Russian fire than Washington had expected.” The debate ended with the administration concluding that the rebels were “an asset instead of a liability.”
This means that military aid will continue to flow, as will cooperation with Turkey and the GCC and deference to Saudi priorities. It’s good news for ISIS and Al Nusra, but devastating for ordinary Syrians fleeing to Europe in order to escape the devastation that the U.S. has unleashed on their homeland.
In a perplexing and dangerous paradox, the empire is now at the mercy of its subaltern states.
Daniel Lazare is the author of several books including The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy (Harcourt Brace).