Contrary to his pledge not to send US troops for ground operations, US President Barack Obama has authorized a 50-member special operations troops to remain on ground in Syria. Though the President asserts that they are not on a combat mission and their role is confined to coordinating and assisting the Arab and Kurdish fighters in their fight against the Islamic State, it is likely that they might assume a combative role with gradual infusion of more troops.
The influence of neo-conservatives on Obama Administration has been decisive. The President retained the services of neo-cons of Bush era to find military solutions to the Afghan problem earlier and was engaged in supporting moderate Islamic groups with arms and aid under the rubric of ‘Arab spring’ to unseat despotic regimes from power. The Syrian rebel groups received official support from the Obama Administration to fight ISIS in the form of ‘train and equip’ program, which is far lesser compared to the CIA driven covert operations running into billions of American dollars to unseat the Assad regime from power.
Though the Americans are apt in removing despotic regimes like the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam of Iraq, they have failed to provide any stable alternative in Syria. The US, by supporting the rebel forces, has contributed to the weakness of the state institutions in Syria, much like the Russians and Iranians who seek to prevent the Assad regime from falling despite its despotic character.
Weak-state institutions are the results of civil wars where rival groups claim power and legitimacy leading to an absence of security and resulting in the collapse of the economy and the failure of basic social services like education and health. These are the primary reasons for the rise of a radicalized environment that is conducive for the growth of terrorism as evidenced in Iraq and Afghanistan and in a host of African countries like Libya, Somalia and Mali.
Therefore, taking on ISIS in Syria by airstrikes and ground operations will not address the real causes of terrorism as the Americans much like the Russians are engaged in a two-fold war: one against the ISIS and the other to unseat the Assad regime by throwing its weight behind the rebel groups much to the chagrin of Russians who seek to prevent the regime from falling by any means.
Although the war for or against the Assad regime has been paused with the need to fight ISIS, it is likely to be resumed with the suspicions rising among the Russians and Iranians about the American intentions behind sending ground troops. This will keep the state weak and even if the US is able to liquidate ISIS, the instability could spawn other terror groups.
The lesson must have been learned by the US that even after its more than decade-long operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the state institutions are still fragile and terrorism is on the rise. By sending ground troops, America could raise the possibility of engaging in another hotspot that can only add to existing problems instead of solving them.
There are pertinent questions regarding the American will and capacity to address the problem of terrorism in real terms. First, will the Americans be interested to provide for a stable state with normal socio-economic functions in Syria? The civil war has led to flight of millions of Syrians from their home to neighboring countries and Europe. Will bringing them back and restoring their faith in government be among the American cards? If not, then the toppling of Assad or withdrawing after liquidating ISIS from its stronghold in Syria will not in anyways contribute to the stability of the state. But by weakening the state institutions, damage would have been done by the intervening major powers.
Obama has made it clear that the American operation against ISIS in Syria will be a surgical one primarily conducted by airstrikes without any long-term engagement of ground troops. One interpretation of this is that the Americans are not concerned about the Syrian state, its weakness and stability while operating against the ISIS. On the contrary, they have complained that the Russians were engaged in indiscriminate attacks targeting the rebel forces while fighting ISIS to bolster the Assad regime.
The war against ISIS is likely to result in an uncontrolled chain of civilian deaths. There are already civilian deaths that the Americans have already admitted of committing. The war is not against the state, but against a group of people. The bombs that miss without hitting the ‘enemy’ hit innocent civilians. Unlike the World Wars when there were few qualms about causing collateral damage because ultimately it was still the enemy that suffered, presently such actions put international law in jeopardy. International law is based on the logic of self-defence and states are the sole units of action. Pre-emptive attacks can be self-serving and actions against such groups can undermine territorial integrity of states within which such groups operate. Though the US and other permanent members of the UN Security Council apparently enjoy the legitimacy to operate against ISIS, more civilian deaths and surfacing of selfish motives of the great powers would invite more questions to their actions rather than applause.
Apart from the moral and legal aspects of the war, there are practical difficulties in taking on ISIS. The dilemma is how the fixed territorial operations of Americans primarily focusing on ISIS stronghold of Raqqa will address the fluidity of the group. The foothold of ISIS has expanded to other adjacent regions where the state institutions remain weak and fragile. Additionally, the group has begun exploiting the differences between the Taliban factions to spread its sway into Afghanistan and fill the resultant power vacuum.
In the era of globalization, “democratization of technology”, the “privatization of war” and the “miniaturization of weaponry” embolden the radical groups vis-a-vis state-actors. Asymmetric wars cannot be won. Nuclear missile defense technology that the US planned to develop to showcase its achievements in the military arena primarily aimed at containing conventional enemies is not equipped to detect operations if planes and buses are used for terrorist operations and people sneaking in through fake passports and visas. Like the conventional regular army of the opponent, there is no identifiable enemy in this kind of asymmetric warfare. They mingle with civilians and can even enter into the territory of some other states from where they can wage war. The difficulties in the counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan have revealed that the US Army embraced a big-war paradigm. Difficult terrains, porous boundaries, difficulty in understanding native peoples’ language and cultural dissimilarity all impeded the American fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
The Americans, the Russians and the Iranians must find a common ground not only to fight ISIS, but also to ensure institution-building, the establishment of the rule of law, the promotion of internal reconciliation, good governance and the provision of basic services that are the basic requirements in the absence of which non-state actors like terrorists, warlords and civil war groups move from strength to strength. The common ground may be a reformed Assad regime or a democratic regime evolved from within and not an American sponsored one.