MEDIA WATCH A risky American expansion in Syria
ON the face of it, President Obama’s decision to send 250 more members of the military to Syria to fight the socalled Islamic State (ISIS) may seem like a small move. The number is a far cry from the 180,000 American troops who were fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan when he took office in 2009. But there is good reason to be concerned about this expanding mission, which increases the United States’ involvement in Syria well beyond the 50 Special Operations personnel there now.
In announcing his decision on Monday in Germany, Mr. Obama said he wanted to capitalise on the recent success the Americans and Syrians have had in driving the ISIS out of key areas. The American troops will be engaged in training and assisting local forces and are “not going to be leading the fight on the ground,” he insisted.
While American forces will not be leading the ground war in Syria, they will be involved in military operations and working without proper authorisation from Congress. Unlike the American troops in Iraq, which are fighting the ISIS at the request of the Iraqi government, the troops in Syria will be operating in another sovereign nation with no clear legal right.
Mr. Obama says these new troops will help train local forces. Syrian Kurdish fighters have proved to be quite capable at reclaiming territory from both the Syrian government and the ISIS, but the United States is still struggling to find a sufficient number of Arab opposition fighters who will be needed to recapture Raqqa, the ISIS’s de facto capital in Syria.
It has long been obvious that the best way to defeat the ISIS lies in ending the Syrian civil war between President Bashar alAssad and opposition forces so that all sides can focus on the terrorists, which Mr. Obama told the Europeans is “the most urgent threat to our nations.” Unfortunately, a promising month long ceasefire between the Assad regime and opposition forces has begun to crumble, and with it, faint hopes of resuming negotiations on a political solution.
Russia, which supports the Assad regime, is America’s supposed partner in enforcing the cease-fire and pursuing a political solution. Yet it has moved heavy artillery into position outside of the key city of Aleppo, raising new doubts about Moscow’s intentions and its commitment to a durable peace.
Mr. Obama’s announcement of an expanded role for American forces came during a speech in Germany that dealt broadly with the need for European unity and contained an appeal for the Europeans and NATO to “do more” by joining the United States in carrying out air strikes, contributing trainers and providing economic aid to Iraq.
Defeating the ISIS requires multidimensional responses, including improved European intelligence sharing and security cooperation, as Mr. Obama emphasised. The United States has also opened up a new line of combat by mounting cyber attacks against the group’s online systems. But increasing the American military presence in Syria raises serious risks and many unanswered questions. Chief among them are these: What do more troops mean for American involvement in the future and how does this war end? —