This article first appeared on The Epoch Times
Despite what the administration may say, the new offensive in Syria indicates a new war. President Obama has worked hard and ran on a platform to end the (dumb) wars the United States was engaged in prior to his election. However, the president has now engaged in what he and his Secretary of State John Kerry describe as a counterterrorism offensive in Iraq and Syria. Yet with yesterday's incursion into Syria, the United States has engaged in war. President Obama also indicated that there will be no American troops on the ground engaged in a combat mission, however, the strikes last night indicate otherwise.
Why is the incursion into Syria from Iraq different from other prior counterterror offensives? Putting aside semantic differences between counterterrorism and war, the counterterror campaigns recently described by the president were likened to those taking place in Yemen and Somali (along with Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan to some degree) enjoy host nation invitations. While the Assad administration in Syria has welcomed US cooperation in fighting a mutual enemy (the Islamic State), the US has rejected such cooperation as they do not see the Assad regime as legitimate and in fact would like to see it toppled (though there are reports that the US did notify Syria of the strikes through an intermediary yesterday.) Given the US position, the Assad regime, and its allies such as Russia, have said they would see US strikes in Syria as signs of aggression.
The prior counterterror operations taken by the United States in other nations targeting al-Qaeda members have typically been taken covertly by the Central Intelligence Agency. Furthermore, these covert strikes taken by the CIA (not the Defense Department despite a major push to shift the so-called targeted killing program to them) have been carried out by unmanned aircraft. The new offensive last night was carried out by an array of manned aircraft, cruise missiles launched from an offshore vessel, and with partner Arab nations (though the DoD has not described the degree to which Arab partners contributed). According to the Associated Press, Syrian activists reported that last night's offensive delivered over 50 strikes. To put that in context of other so-called counterterror operations, since the United States began to strike the Islamic State in Iraq on August 8, there have been 194 strikes across several fronts. Last night's strikes in Syria hit multiple Islamic State targets in their capital of Raqqa, the strategic Deir el-Zour province, and Kfar Derian, a base for al-Qaeda's Jabhat al-Nusra.
The air campaign waged last night was also different from prior counterterror efforts in that no specific members of the Islamic State were targeted. In Iraq, President Obama has authorized an offensive campaign, which would allow the military to target specific members of the Islamic State wherever they are. Prior to the uptick in military efforts, the US strikes in Iraq were only conducted under the authority to "support Iraqi security force and Kurdish defense force
operations, as well as to protect critical infrastructure, U.S. personnel and
facilities, and support humanitarian efforts," and were not directed to strike specific members even if the military had intelligence regarding their whereabouts. According to reporting by NBC's Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski, the strikes in Syria hit targets such as command and control and resources depots - not specific members because the US does not have the intelligence capabilities on the ground necessary to direct such strikes. In fact Miklaszewski stated that the Syrian rebels the US now intends to train with the newly approved congressional authorization are not nearly ready to serve in this on the ground intelligence capacity as the US says it could take up to a year to train them. The thinking previous to the strikes was that the US would wait until the Syrian rebels were adequately trained before striking in Syria. Some believe the president wanted to strike inside Syria a day before his speech in front of the United Nations General Assembly to garner more support for a coalition effort against the Islamic State.
It is hard to classify last night's offensive as a counterterror operation, though, the DoD did acknowledge they hit a lesser known terror group in Syria called the Khorasan Group, which several experts describe as associated with al-Qaeda and are more capable of striking the homeland. In fact, the DoD stated their strikes in Syria against the Khorasan Group "took action to disrupt the imminent attack plotting against the United States and Western interests" who have "established a safe haven in Syria."
As many experts and reports have pointed out, last night signifies the beginning of a prolonged and sustained campaign to rid Syria of radical Islamists who pose a danger to the region, the west, and the United States. As Peter Bergen, journalist and counterterror analyst, stated this morning at an event held by the Bipartisan Policy Center, the Syrian civil war happened on Obama's watch, not President Bush, so this administration has a fundamental interest in its handling. The president has now decided to train Syrian ground troops, which is a necessity for success in the sustained effort to rid Syria of terrorist's safe havens. Despite ruling out US ground troops for political reasons and championing anti-war efforts to disengage the US from a "permanent war footing" the president has now done the exact opposite. This is war.