Friday, October 30, 2015

Deployment of U.S. Troops to Syria Demonstrates Difficulty in Keeping Promises

     The White House announced today that it is sending a small contingent of Special Forces to Syria as part of the anti-Islamic State group fight.  White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest confirmed the number of troops deployed will be less than 50 with a mission of training, advising, and assisting local moderate opposition forces in northern Syria that have a proven record of beating back the Islamic State group and regaining lost territory.  Earnest was also keen to mention that the deployment of these troops is not a change in the mission given the president’s insistence of no boots on the ground serving in a combat capacity.  Rather, the deployment is an intensification of and consistent with the current mission to bolster local partners in the fight.       

     This deployment is significant for a whole host of reasons, but one in particular that stands out is the difficulty in the ability to keep promises especially in the context of foreign policy and geopolitics.  President Obama campaigned to conclude the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, something that was very popular among the war-fatigued American public at the time.  The president ignored some that advised keeping a small force in Iraq and instead, withdrew all U.S. troops in 2011 (now troops have returned).  These same critics now blame the resurgence of IS in Iraq on that troop withdrawal.  Obama recently had to adjust his troop draw-down in Afghanistan – which by 2017, the U.S. would only maintain an embassy presence – due to surges in Taliban activity and poor security in many parts of the country.  

     Now, the president appears to be eating his words when it comes to the policy against IS.  Playing semantics with operations demonstrates how difficult it is to keep promises.  The administration foretold following the slow escalation of activity in Syria and Iraq – initially just airstrikes as part of a humanitarian operation in Iraq and then as part of a broader military campaign against militants in Iraq and Syria – that it wasn’t “mission creep.”  This began with the president insisting that U.S. troops will not be returning to Iraq - to which he has sent over 3,000 troops in a “train, advise, and assist” mission for Iraqi and Kurdish forces - while also insisting U.S. troops will not serve in a combat mission.  However, following the death of a U.S. special operator last week, the administration has been at pains to justify how U.S. troops are not in a combat role and yet one soldier has died in combat.

     President Obama was always hesitant about acting in Syria, though receiving a great deal of pressure to act given the mounting humanitarian catastrophe and burgeoning extremist safe havens.  It would be one thing if the administration decided to stay completely out or fully engage in the region against IS, Assad, or al-Qaeda, but rather, the administration has developed a half in-half out, limited engagement approach.  Clearly this has not worked.  With the failed overt train and equip program, to which Congress authorized a total of $500 million to train moderate Syrian opposition forces to fight IS (not Assad), pressure is mounting for tangible results.

     President Obama has maintained an idealistic view of the world, for the most part, and much of his foreign policy reflects this view.  Virtually his entire foreign platform – even six years in – is reactionary to that of his predecessor.  Deputy National Security adviser Ben Rhodes has likened the Obama administration’s use of drones as well as criticisms against it under the guise that it causes less casualties than a sustained combat presence or combat operations such as the Bush administration’s war in Iraq.  Similarly, Earnest said today that the troops deploying to Syria will not serve in a combat role and the president will not send a large deployment of troops to overthrow the Assad regime citing the failed outcome of the Iraq War.  He said that the president’s policy is to empower local forces to fight their own battles.

     Situations on the ground change constantly.  If one thing in geopolitics and foreign policy is certain, it is that it is fluid.  President Obama’s idealistic outlook has hurt his policy prescriptions in many cases for approaching issues as they should be, not as how they are.  Thus far, Syria has become one of, if not the biggest challenge for the administration.  There are no easy answers, but it will continue to get worse before it gets better.  The president must also be wary going forward against making sweeping promises given his administration is currently trying to backpedal and spin to maintain certain policies when the actions run to the contrary. 

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