During a strategic planning conference with foreign military leaders, President Obama had an encouraging change of perspective on operations in the Iraq and Syria. He acknowledged that the fight against ISIS expands beyond military action and stressed that we are combating an “ideological strain of extremism” more than a military foe. He also said that the United States’s military leadership was acting in compliance with this position. Unsurprisingly, recent developments on the ground tell a different story.
Instead of waging what Obama describes as “a campaign that includes all the dimensions of power,” we have ramped up airstrikes to their highest frequency in months, sold more arms to shady allies and sent more than 1,500 troops to the region. All this is in stark contrast to Obama’s promises of limited military involvement and no boots on the ground. Yes, these soldiers are only there to train and command, but with so many troops so close to the action, U.S. casualties are almost inevitable.
The headlines primarily highlight the fight for Kobani in northern Syria and the advances of ISIS troops into Iraq’s Anbar province, which is situated near Baghdad. ISIS is gaining territory on both fronts, which raises the question of whether U.S. military actions have even been effective.
This campaign is being fought primarily using airstrikes, the success rates of which are notoriously difficult to assess. What can be measured, however, is the $500 million the U.S. has spent on airstrikes over the past two months, according to figures released by the Pentagon.
Next, we have trained and advised “moderate” rebel groups. Given the U.S.’s well-documented history of subsidizing militant groups in the region, we must seriously question the means by which rebel groups are determined “moderate.” When the U.S. was targeting the Assad regime in Syria before ISIS became a household name, we were screening the group as a potential ally.
The enemy of our enemy should not necessarily be our friend. Consider the two rebel groups we are supporting the most: the Kurdish rebels, who are considered terrorists when they cross the border into Turkey, and the Free Syrian Army, of which various Syrian ethnic sects disapprove and which is now looking more and more like a U.S. mercenary army.
More discouraging news has surfaced regarding U.S. arms supplies, some of which have landed directly in the hands of ISIS. An ISIS militant posted a video on social media of himself rummaging through the contents of a U.S. parachute bundle full of hand grenades and mortar rounds.
It is no wonder that the U.S. has a 12 percent approval rating in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, two countries in the region with which we have some of the friendliest relations. These approval ratings beat out approval ratings for ISIS in these countries by a mere 7 and 9 percentage points respectively, according to a poll by a leading commercial survey firm in the Middle East.
So, how has the Obama administration confronted problems like economic depravity, religious sectarianism and political exclusion? We cannot be sure. First and foremost, we must do more to support the international military coalition that has united against this terrorist threat. Our foreign policy leaders keep stressing the significance of these alliances, yet the U.S. is still calling all of the shots. When discussing our operations in the Middle East, the spotlight and the headlines must be on them, not on the U.S. The U.S. should be involved not by committing more airstrikes and more weaponry, but by working to assuage economic disparities and diminish ethno-sectarian conflict in an effort to develop an alternative narrative for those who feel the need to resort to violence and join militant groups.
This is going to be a long-term campaign, and there are no quick fixes in sight. If we continue the trend of increasing military involvement in the region, we will find ourselves entrenched in this conflict for years. The harsh reality is that the U.S. has done more to destabilize the region than to bring about peace; by fracturing tenuous ethno-sectarian relations, we have ultimately created space for ISIS to rise to insurgency in the first place.
The question is not whether or not ISIS and its actions are abhorrent — they unquestionably are. The question is whether or not U.S. intervention is the proper course of action in the Middle East. A look at the history reveals a clearly unsuccessful precedent. Saddam Hussein was a tyrant, but the puppet government and army that we put in his place deserted at the first sight of ISIS insurgency. Our foreign policies have not worked and will not work. We must try something new.