Obama’s Gamble in Iraq and Syria

President Barack Obama’s speech on Wednesday marks the third major shift in United States counterterrorism strategy since 9/11, but it remains to be seen if the new approach will work better than the previous ones.

The first shift followed the 9/11 attacks, when George W. Bush launched what became known as the Global War on Terror. The main elements of this strategy included forcible regime change in Afghanistan and Iraq; mass deployment of US and allied ground forces to both countries; a global hunt for suspected Al Qaeda operatives and their incarceration in secret “black” prisons run by the Central Intelligence Agency or in the US military facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba; the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” ordered by President Bush; and enormous growth in the domestic and foreign surveillance apparatus of the US and other Western countries.

Like Goldilocks, Obama found Bush’s counterterrorism strategy ‘too hot,’ but his own strategy proved ‘too cold.’ Now, he’s hoping for ‘just right.’

The second shift occurred when Barack Obama took office. He had campaigned on ending the “dumb war” in Iraq and on concentrating on “nation building at home” in the aftermath of the financial crisis. He downgraded war on terror as a US foreign policy priority, excising the term, itself, from official government communications, and he signed orders to close the Guantánamo detention centre and to forbid the use of torture by the US.

In fact, Obama’s policy changes were less dramatic than his statements suggested. While the new president reduced the number of detainees at Guantánamo, he failed to shut down the prison, intrusive surveillance practices begun under the Bush presidency remained largely in place – as we learned from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden – and Obama continued the clandestine campaign against Al Qaeda and its affiliates, including the commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden in his Pakistan hideout. In addition, US drone strikes against suspected terrorists in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia multiplied under Obama’s watch.

In one big area, however, Obama charted a different course: He began bringing American soldiers home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Critics attacked him for failing to negotiate an agreement with the Iraqi government that would leave a small US contingent in that country, but Obama was determined to “end” the war. He has similarly set a deadline of 2016 for the final withdrawal of the remaining US troops in Afghanistan, and he signalled a US foreign and defence policy “pivot” towards Asia and away from the Mideast and Europe, where the US would encourage local partners to take the lead.

But events have a way of disrupting the best-laid plans. Russia’s aggressive moves in Ukraine caused Obama to reassert America’s leadership as the guarantor of European security, including the protection of former Soviet republics that are members of NATO. And now, the festering, spreading chaos of the Syrian war has prompted a third shift in US counterterrorism strategy since 9/11.

The new strategy recommits American military power to the stability of Iraq, but this time in a different way: Americans ground forces and troops from allied countries, including a small contingent of Canadians, will serve as advisors to local fighters against ISIS. The US will also provide intelligence support and conduct a “systematic campaign of airstrikes.” In his speech, the president portrayed this strategy as consistent with the approach he has “successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years,” where the US has “[taken] out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines.”

In truth, the new enterprise is different in kind, and a much larger undertaking, than recent US actions in Yemen and Somalia. For one thing, the US will soon have 1,700 troops in Iraq, whereas there are reportedly no more than a handful of US military advisors in these other countries. More to the point, the US will be directly involved in generating, training and supporting fighting units in Iraq – not only the Iraqi armed forces, but also Kurdish troops and what Obama called “national guard units” in Sunni areas. This suggests that the US is hoping for a re-enactment of the Sunni Awakening when tribal groups in Sunni parts of Iraq took up arms against ISIS’s predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq. Meanwhile, American officials will continue pressing for more progress towards a broadly representative government of Iraq. These objectives bring the US back into Iraq as a major military and political actor.

On Wednesday, Obama also indicated that he will authorize US airstrikes in Syria and that Washington will seek to ramp up support for opposition groups in that country. But the moderate Syrian opposition has been crushed between the Syrian government’s army and jihadist forces including ISIS. Obama’s new counterterrorism strategy thus suggests that the US will now become a big player in Syria’s war and internal politics, too.

All told, Obama appears to have drawn lessons from his own and his predecessor’s mistakes. Excessive reluctance to deploy American power may be just as dangerous as the reckless deployment of the 82nd Airborne to depose a dictator. Like Goldilocks, Obama found Bush’s counterterrorism strategy “too hot,” but his own strategy proved “too cold.” Now, he’s hoping for “just right.”

But it will be a long time before we know if this third US strategy will work. The task that the president has set for the US – and by extension for its allies, too – will almost certainly take many years to accomplish. ISIS can certainly be “degraded” with a few airstrikes. But destroying ISIS presupposes that some other group or entity – one that is both powerful and legitimate in the eyes of the local population – can take its place.

That’s mainly a political, not a military, challenge; and as the Syria-Iraq war rages on, it remains a distant prospect.

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