At Last, Change of Course, in Midst of Setback


This commentary first appeared in Iran Roundtable and was prepared to add some more insight to a short interview with BBC World Service Newsday Program.  Below is also the interview:

The first death in action of an American soldier in Iraq since 2011 has refocused attention on the role of U.S. troops in a mission which the administration has emphasized from the outset is not a “combat” one.

Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler died after being shot an Oct. 22 during a joint U.S.-Kurdish raid on an Islamic State prison, where dozens of prisoners believed to have been facing execution within hours, were freed.

The direct ground engagement with this new enemy was in sharp contrast to this administration’s line where in 2014, President Barack Obama told an audience of US troops that “The American forces who have been deployed to Iraq, do not and will not have a combat mission.”

However in his testimony on Tuesday, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter signalled an apparent shift in U.S. policy toward the use of boots on the ground to combat ISIS.  President Obama had previously said there would be no U.S. ground troops used to fight the Islamic State. Is that a change in policy or tactic?

The administration is struggling to explain its strategy as there appears to be a gap between Obama and his Pentagon chief regarding the potential use of ground troops in combat mission.

The administration, on the one hand, still favours its long held policy of not committing troops “to fighting another ground war” per President’s decree.  However, as the pressures mount on the Obama Administration for lack of action and policy to fight ISIS, with some rightly blaming this administration for its rise, the administration is not only changing tone but action, as well.

The administration is attempting to figure out a middle ground between having regular forces on the ground as US did in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, and the commitment to avoid boots on the ground following troops withdrawal from Iraq in 2011.  The administration is working hard to define this middle-ground policy even if it means re-defining the concept of “combat mission”.

Obviously, the joint raid with the Kurdish forces was a spark of such a middle-ground policy, where we continue to see such operations and raids not only in Iraq but perhaps in Syria, as well.  This was pointed out by Ash Carter, as he referred to it as “direct action on the ground” against ISIS be it in Raqqa or Ramadi, in his testimony before Senate Armed Services Committee.

Remarkably, this administration has finally admitted that the absence of a robust US policy and direct military involvement in areas where US forces were badly needed has not only worsened the situation on the ground and led to many crisis  –  the emergence of ISIS being one of them, but it has also created a power vacuum where other hostile states and elements, such as the Islamic Iran, Russia and Hezbollah, have rightly filled.

If this US administration had not sat idle, and had not ignore its red lines, abandoned its allies and its mission in the region, the Russians would not have come to Assad’s rescue; moreover, Iranian Revolutionary Guards would not had roamed the region as easily as they do now.

If we go back to the early days of this administration, we can track Russian hostilities against strategic US interests to that period where they seized on the new lay-back and lead-from-behind US policy.   Russian air force first launched an all-out attack on Georgian forces.  Then, they provoked widespread unrest in Ukraine, under Obama’s watch, annexing Crimea comfortably.  The Russian President, then stepped up Russia’s military presence in Syria in support of its thuggish leader Bashar al-Assad under the pretext of fighting Islamic State militants while openly and widely attacking US supported anti-Assad forces.

With this gradual change in US policy, unfortunately it took this administration two terms, fours Defence Secretaries, two Secretary of States and many lost wars in strategic regions, such as Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Ukraine to realize this policy was headed in the wrong direction.

Talk on Syria

Diplomacy has been this administration’s sole foreign policy tool to solve world’s problems.  However, terrorist threats such as Al-Qaida, ISIS, Hamas, Hezbollah and threats from rouge states such as Iran and North Korea require a different foreign policy tool that US possesses but this administration has chosen not to utilize.

It has been proven that in many cases diplomacy is less likely to succeed if it lacks any credible military muscle.  Utilizing diplomacy alone to solve the bloody Syrian conflict is a perfect example of such a failed approach.

There have been many talks on the Syrian crisis; however, the stark difference between the previous talks on Syria and this supposedly new round is that the previous ones were held from the position of strength as far as the anti-Assad forces were concerned.  This new round of talk on Syria seems to be from the position of weakness of anti-Assad forces:  The Free Syrian Army and the political opposition are in a state of crisis; the traditional anti-Assad states, mainly Saudi Arabia and Turkey, are losing faith in the traditional US leadership in the region.  The Russians and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are stepping up their efforts to further prop up the Assad regime, while US is gradually abandoning the Syrian opposition.

The world has well-read the American hands, i.e. the Americans often negotiate and make concessions in times of weakness.  Iranians knew that well when they walked out of the nuclear negotiations a decade ago and soon started spinning centrifuges in thousands, only to return to the negotiating table with their hands full.  Similarly in Iraq they forced the Bush administration to sit down and discuss Iraq on the same table when their deadly IEDs were killing hundreds of US servicemen.  Putin is following suit, and I believe the US is left with no options but to join the talks in a position of weakness at least for now, unless something drastically changes, which I doubt will.

Unfortunately, with this policy, the US will eventually concede to the will of the Russians and Iran to keep Assad’s reign in place.  The Saudis and the Turks already know this, and they are trying to mend fences with Bashar Al-Assad through Russia and other Assad allies.

The Elephant in the Room

Today, the Islamic Republic of Iran in the Middle East is US’s elephant in the room.  Thanks to this leave-from-behind policy, there is little room left for US to maneuver in the region.  Iran has asserted itself as the region’s hegemon, and the US further reinforced this supremacy by allowing Iran to have nukes.

Recognizing Iran’s upper hand in this quagmire, the US knew that Iran would be invited to the talks, regardless and the US is currently in no position and has no appetite to reject Iran’s presence.  After all, the two sides engaged in one of the most complicated nuclear talks of our times and it would not be strange for them to sit alongside each other to discuss Syria.

On the contrary,  Iran’s clerical rulers will not view the American invitation to the Syria talks as a gesture on the part of the US, rather as a sign of US weakness in the wake of Iran’s increased support for its allies, Assad, Houthi forces and other destructive forces in the region.  This administration has long abandoned the regime change policy in Iran and the nuke deal sealed the clerical regime’s reign to power in Iran.

The Islamic regime in Iran is quite content with US pulling out of the region and gradually leaving it for the ambitious forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran.  This is the position that Iranian clerical rulers are most content with and if anyone would be smiling at this round of Syrian talks it would be Iran and its proxies  – certainly not the US and its partners.

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