President Obama has ordered airstrikes against the non-state actor the Islamic State (IS) a.k.a. Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) a.k.a. the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). He has also ordered an airlift of food, water and medicine to Iraqi religious minorities who have fled their homes and who are now living on Mt. Sinjar. IS, a ruthless militant organization, has fought its way through Iraq with surprising speed and, as I write this, is only a few miles outside of Erbil, a major city in the Kurdish region of Iraq and where a US consulate is.
In his weekly address, President Obama said that the broad strategic goals of the US military operations in Iraq are to protect US citizens in Erbil, address the humanitarian crisis, prevent Iraq from becoming a safe haven for terrorists, and to urge Iraqis to reconcile, unify, and defend their country. While the president insists that this military operation will be limited, that the United States will not slide into another protracted military engagement, that there will be no commitment of US troops on the ground, we hear complaints that limited airstrikes will not be enough to stop IS.
This is a fighting force that is well armed with US weapons abandoned by some members of Iraq’s military. The group robbed a bank full of money provided by US taxpayers. The group also receives funding from wealthy people in the region who are sympathetic to their cause. They attract fighters from Europe and the United States who have a misguided view of the meaning of the concept of jihad in Islam.
This is a ruthless, determined, well-funded, well-armed organization. There is no question about this. The nonsense rolls in like an early morning fog when some journalists and analysts tell us that IS owes its strength to President Obama’s unwillingness to become more militarily involved in Syria at the beginning of its civil war. IS, they say, filled a vacuum.
Enough of this nonsense. Enough. President Obama did not intervene in Syria and did not do more to arm the Syrian rebels for good reasons. The Syrian opposition lacked unity then and now and it included groups such as IS. There was no reason to believe the weapons given to “moderates” would not end up in the hands of IS. Besides that, all of the various military options would have come with a high price tag and uncertain outcomes.
In a July 19, 2013 letter to Senate Armed Services Committee chair Sen. Carl Levin, General Martin Dempsey, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff outlined an unclassified assessment of military options in Syria. At the time of the letter, the US military role was limited to humanitarian assistance to the thousands of Syrian refugees, security help to Syria’s neighbors who were dealing with a tremendous influx of Syrians and “nonlethal assistance to the opposition.”
Dempsey outlined five options: train, advise, and assist the opposition; conduct limited stand-off strikes; establish a no fly zone; establish buffer zones; control chemical weapons.
On the first option – train, advise, and assist the opposition – Dempsey said: “The scale could range from several hundred to several thousand troops with the costs varying accordingly, but estimated at $500 million per year INITIALLY (emphasis mine) About the risks he says:
“Risks include extremists gaining access to additional capabilities, retaliatory cross-border attacks, and insider attacks or inadvertent association with war crimes due to vetting difficulties.”
On the second option – conduct limited stand-off strikes – would require “hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines, and other enablers. Depending on duration, the costs would be in the billions.” There was also a probability of civilian casualties with this option.
The third option – establish a no-fly zone – would require “hundreds of ground and sea-based aircraft, intelligence and electronic warfare support, and enablers for refueling. Estimated costs are $500 million dollars initially, averaging as much as a BILLION DOLLARS PER MONTH over the course of a year. . . (emphasis mine) Risks include the loss of U.S. aircraft, which would require us to insert personnel recovery forces.” Dempsey also says that this may not reduce the violence because “the regime relies overwhelmingly on surface fires – mortars, artillery, and missiles.”
About the fourth option – establish buffer zones – Dempsey says: “Thousands of U.S. ground forces would be needed, even if positioned outside Syria, to support those physically defending the zones. A limited no-fly zone coupled with U.S. ground forces would push the costs over one billion dollars per month.” One risk: “The zones could also become operational bases for extremists.”
Finally – control chemical weapons. I will quote the paragraph in its entirety.
“This option uses lethal force to prevent the use or proliferation of chemical weapons. We do this by destroying portions of Syria’s massive stockpile, interdicting its movements and delivery, or by seizing and securing program components. At a minimum, this option would call for a no-fly zone as well as air and missile strikes involving hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines, and other enablers. Thousands of special operations forces and other ground forces would be needed to assault and secure critical sites. Costs could also average well over one billion dollars per month. The impact would be the control of some, but not all chemical weapons. It would also help prevent their further proliferation into the hands of extremist groups. OUR INABILITY TO FULLY CONTROL SYRIA’S STORAGE AND DELIVERY SYSTEMS COULD ALLOW EXTREMISTS TO GAIN BETTER ACCESS.
(emphasis mine) Risks are similar to the no-fly zone with the added risk of U.S. boots on the ground.”
I have quoted this paragraph in full because it is imperative that we cut through the nonsense that says President Obama showed himself weak when he did not attack Syria after its use of chemical weapons. He drew a red-line and did not follow through. The mistake was a rhetorical one. He ought not to have drawn a red-line in the first instance. However, not bombing Syria was intelligent, not weak.
Let us recall the sequence of events. After it became clear that Bashar al Assad had used chemical weapons against his own citizens, the president was prepared to act. He started to gather an international coalition. France said yes, but the British Parliament refused Prime Minister David Cameron’s request. The president decided to ask for a congressional vote because the people of the United States was against US involvement in another war. Pope Francis called for a day-long fast. Russia brokered a deal whereby Assad would give up his stockpiles of chemical weapons. There was no longer a need to strike Syria. The strategic objective had been met. And, it was more than “control” of the weapons, but it was “destruction” of the weapons done without all the costs and risks outlined in Dempsey’s letter.
It would not have been intelligent for President Obama to strike Syria for the sake of striking Syria. People who say that this is a sign of weakness, that our allies in the Middle East cannot trust the president’s word are working out a hidden agenda that is not in the interest of the people of the United States. Journalists who report that their “sources” tell them that the United States cannot be trusted because President Obama was intellectually and tactically nimble enough to achieve a strategic goal without firing a shot are being bamboozled.
There were not then and are not now any good options in Syria or Iraq. And, if the president must err, I hope he errs on the side on not inserting more lethal weapons into Syria. At the same time, I think it is wise to arm the Kurds so they have a fighting chance against the Islamic State. It is the Kurds and the Iraqi army who will have to provide a safe corridor for the people on the mountain to find better shelter. Humanitarian assistance is always in order.
However, the leaders in Iraq and around the world must wake to a new international reality. We are at a tipping point in world affairs. We the People of the United States are tired of perpetual war. We are no longer willing to spend billions, trillions, of dollars playing the part of the world’s police force. Iraqi military forces cannot lay their weapons down before IS and think the United States military is coming to fight their battles. Other governments in the region also ought to disabuse themselves of this notion.
In his remarks on Saturday, August 09, President Obama said: “So we’re going to be pushing very hard to encourage Iraqis to get their government together. Until they do that, it is going to be hard to get the unity of effort that allows us to not just play defense, but also engage in offense.” I say: “what do you mean us?”
Unless the governments in the region want IS to achieve its goal of an Islamic caliphate on their soil, they will have to step up with funding and their own military personnel to fight the battle and President Obama ought to make this clear to all of them.
As President Eisenhower warned, we pay for each jet fighter, each warship, each tank with roads and schools and food security and health care for our own citizens. No more. This is not weakness, this is intelligent. And our own analysts and journalists ought to stop buying nonsense and then selling it to us. Enough is enough.
Valerie Elverton Dixon is founder of JustPeaceTheory.com and author of “Just Peace Theory Book One; Spiritual Morality, Radical Love, and the Public Conversation”